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Singapore’s fake news law kicked in on Oct 2. Here is how it works

SINGAPORE — The Protection from Online Falsehoods and Manipulation Act (Pofma) kicked in on Wednesday (Oct 2), more than two years after the Government said it was reviewing laws to fight the scourge of fake news.

Singapore’s fake news law kicked in on Oct 2. Here is how it works

Individuals seeking to challenge a directive under the fake news law will generally face no legal costs, and the hearing will take as little as nine days.

SINGAPORE — The Protection from Online Falsehoods and Manipulation Act (Pofma) kicked in on Wednesday (Oct 2), more than two years after the Government said it was reviewing laws to fight the scourge of fake news.

On Tuesday, the Government revealed details about the controversial new law, such as how its various powers are to be exercised and how individuals and organisations can challenge the state’s decision to take down fake news in the public interest.

The law, which was passed in Parliament in May, ignited debate over whether it was necessary, amid concerns of regulatory overreach and Pofma’s effect on freedom of expression and speech.

Details of regulations and orders made under Pofma — some of the mechanics of how Pofma will function — were published in the Government Gazette on Tuesday.

These, as well as the Act itself, show how Pofma empowers the Government to quickly remove malicious falsehoods, and also gives individuals and organisations the ability to seek recourse from the courts — the final arbiter of truth.

WHAT DOES POFMA DO?

Other laws, such as the Telecommunications Act and the Broadcasting Act, already criminalise falsehoods and enable the Government to penalise those dealing in mistruths.

Pofma, on the other hand, gives the Government more targeted powers to stop the spread of any falsehoods which would hurt the public interest, such as by damaging Singapore’s security, foreign relations, public peace, health, safety and finances.

Its ambit also includes falsehoods that:

  • Influence elections

  • Incite hatred between different groups of persons

  • Affect confidence in the Government and its entities

Any minister may direct the Infocomm Media Development Authority, which administers Pofma, to issue directives when such falsehoods are found. During the election period, the Government appoints a public official to exercise these powers.

These directives draw a distinction between an individual person and platforms such as Google, Facebook, Baidu and local media organisations Singapore Press Holdings and Mediacorp. The directives include:

  • Correction: The individual must provide a notice that the statement is false.

  • Stop communication: The individual must cease communicating the false statement.

  • Targeted correction: Internet platforms have to clarify to their Singapore end-users that the offending statement, or part of it, is false. They will also have to give a specified statement of fact, or point out where the specified statement can be found.

  • Disabling: Internet platforms must disable access by Singapore end-users to the false material.

  • General correction: Internet platforms and media organisations have to communicate, publish, broadcast or transmit a correction notice to their end-users in Singapore.

  • Account restriction: Internet platforms must ban fake online accounts, such as bots, from using their services or interacting with their other end-users in Singapore.

ADDITIONAL POWERS

If these directives are not followed, the Government can order an Internet service provider, such as Singtel, to block access to the website.

The Government can quell the financing and promotion of online websites that repeatedly run afoul of Pofma, and compel Internet platforms to disable access to the website. This applies to websites that have attracted Pofma directives over three or more false statements.

Internet platforms provided by Google, Facebook, Twitter, Baidu and WeChat are exempted temporarily from certain Pofma provisions to give them more time “to put in place the necessary arrangements and technological measures”, according to an order published in the Government Gazette, addressing previous claims that the exemption provision could be used for sinister purposes.

WHAT IS A FALSEHOOD?

Pofma is concerned with “false statement of facts”, while statements of opinion, criticism, satire and parodies are not covered by Pofma.

Its legal definition — a false or misleading statement “which a reasonable person seeing, hearing or otherwise perceiving it would consider to be a representation of fact” — is based on an objective standard, rather than a subjective interpretation.

The Act, however, does not explicitly specify how a statement is determined to be “false” and what constitutes public interest, a concern raised by several commentators as well as a trio of Nominated Members of Parliament during the second reading of the Bill in May.

Law and Home Affairs Minister K Shanmugam said that the Government had considered their suggestion, but decided against taking it up, relying instead on the existing body of case law to set out the difference between fact and opinion.

Ultimately, the courts will determine what is true or false, said Mr Shanmugam in the debate. “If a minister is wrong, he gets overruled,” he added.

Subsidiary Pofma legislation also requires the Pofma directive to state the basis on which the statement is deemed to be false, and also to state that the minister is of the opinion that issuing the directive is in the public interest.

HOW TO APPEAL?

The legal right to challenge a Pofma directive has been another hot topic of debate.

To challenge the minister’s decision using Pofma, individuals or organisations can appeal, first to the Government and then to the courts. Mr Shanmugam said an appeal can be heard by a court in as little as nine days.

It is also possible for a court to call for a stay of the directive if it is “technically impossible” for these individuals or organisations to comply with such an order, provided that they set out the reasons in the appeal.

The appeal process will work like this:

  1. When a Pofma directive is issued, appellants can write in seeking to have the minister change his decision through writing, email or to www.pofmaoffice.gov.sg.

  2. The minister can issue a notice of his decision within two working days to change or cancel the directive, or to reject the application altogether. If no notice is given by the minister in this time, the application is refused.

  3. If refused, appellants can file an originating summons and a supporting affidavit — containing evidence to support his appeal — to the court’s registrar within two weeks of the refusal. Sample forms for the summons and affidavit are available to make the process easier.

  4. The hearing date will be fixed six working days after the appellant appears before the registrar or after the registrar accepts the relevant documents, or later if the applicant requests more time.

  5. Appellants will also have to serve the summons and affidavit to the Attorney-General through writing, email, or the court’s electronic filing service no later than 12 noon the day after the appellant files the appeal to the court. To make it easier for appellants, an email address is provided in the directive. The minister has no later than three days to file an affidavit in reply.

  6. The appellant must also file an affidavit of service to the court within two working days after the documents were served to the Attorney-General.

Appellants who are individuals are not required to pay any costs, unless the court determines otherwise, such as in cases where there is abuse of the court process.

For organisations, it will cost at least S$200 to file an appeal, and there will be no charges for the first three days of court hearings. The court will also have the power to waive the fees.

Mr Shanmugam previously said the court has “a general discretion to extend timelines where there is a good reason to do so”.

Related topics

fake news Pofma online falsehood

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