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Getting opposition party member to correct online post did not hamper right to free speech: MCI, MinLaw

SINGAPORE — The Government on Wednesday (Dec 11) refuted "several untrue claims" by the Progress Singapore Party (PSP) on the fake-news laws, and took issue with the opposition party for insinuating that the laws curtailed free speech. PSP member Brad Bowyer was the first to be issued a correction order under the law.

SINGAPORE — The Government on Wednesday (Dec 11) refuted "several untrue claims" by the Progress Singapore Party (PSP) on the fake-news laws, and took issue with the opposition party for insinuating that the laws curtailed free speech. PSP member Brad Bowyer was the first to be issued a correction order under the law.

Remarking on an image on the PSP’s website that showed people’s mouths being sealed by tapes labelled “Pofma”, the Ministry of Law (MinLaw) and the Ministry of Communications and Information (MCI) asked: “How has Mr Bowyer’s mouth been taped? His original post remains available for anyone to read. His rights to free speech remain unaffected. He has gone on to issue repeated clarifications on his original post.

“Requiring a factual statement to be posted in order to correct a false statement does not curtail anyone’s free speech.” 

The party led by Dr Tan Cheng Bock had criticised the Protection from Online Falsehoods and Manipulation Act (Pofma) as falling short of transparency and accountability standards.

PSP’s statement and the image were published on its website on Tuesday. 

Image put up on Progressive Singapore Party's website

In its statement, the party took issue with how the law to counter online falsehoods empowers a government minister to declare a piece of news as false “without requiring any justification, criteria or standards”.

This came after Mr Bowyer was ordered to correct a Facebook post described by the Government as misleading and false. The directive was issued by Finance Minister Heng Swee Keat.

Mr Bowyer had alleged in his post on Nov 13 that the Government is involved in the investment decisions of state investor Temasek Holdings and sovereign wealth fund GIC.

He corrected it later after being issued the directive. He also posted the full clarification from the Government on his Facebook page and encouraged readers to read his original post and the clarification to draw their own views.

Commenting on the directive about a fortnight later, PSP said on its website that giving the minister power to declare what is false does not measure up to standards of transparency and accountability.

“And where the news involves the Government, it also fails the standard of independence," the party added.

It also picked on other aspects of the new law which took effect on Oct 2, leading MinLaw and MCI to rebutt the party’s points on Wednesday as follows:

  1. PSP’s statement: “Pofma empowers the minister to declare a piece of news to be falsehood, without requiring any justification…” 
    MinLaw and MCI’s response: The law explicitly requires ministers to state the reasons why the specified statements are false, and falsehoods are determined from precedents in law. In the case of Mr Bowyer’s Facebook post, the reasons why his statements were false were explained clearly and that both PSP and Mr Bowyer did not deny that his post contained falsehoods. 

  2. PSP: “Pofma empowers the minister to declare a piece of news to be falsehood, without requiring any… criteria or standards.”
    MinLaw and MCI: This is untrue because the law states that Pofma can be used only when clear criteria are met. An aggrieved person is also allowed to challenge a minister’s directive in court within days at minimal cost, and this sets a high standard of accountability. 

  3. PSP: Agrees that the Government needs to be able to act fast to prevent fake news from spreading. However, to declare any news as falsehood and “to impose any penalties thereof”, it is of the view that it should be done by the courts of Singapore for independence.
    MinLaw and MCI: This is untrue. While ministers can order a supposed false statement to be corrected or taken down, only the courts can impose penalties if the direction is not complied with. 
    “In this case, Mr Brad Bowyer (who posted the falsehoods), subsequently posted a short note, as required by law, to say that the Government had put up a clarification on what he had said. His original post remains accessible, along with a link to the Government’s correction or clarification of his statement. Readers can make up their own minds as to what is the truth.”

CLARIFICATION

Mr Bowyer is the first person who has been served an order under Pofma, Singapore’s anti-fake-news law that allows the Government to quickly correct or remove falsehoods.

While he has put up a clarification to his Nov 13 Facebook post, Mr Bowyer said later on Nov 28 that this does not mean he agrees with the Government’s position or admits to having made any false statements on his part. 

He said: “The law is the law after all and without that, we descend into chaos or worse, as we are sadly seeing around the world today far too often.

“Under Pofma, I must place the correction notice regardless of whether I make an appeal and only if my appeal is approved can I remove it, so that would have been my response whatever decision I made.”

Last week, he told TODAY that he has no plans to appeal against the Government’s order for now.

Related topics

Progressive Singapore Party fake news law free speech Protection from Online Falsehoods and Manipulation Act Brad Bowyer Ministry of Law MCI

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