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‘Unfortunate coincidence’ initial Pofma actions directed at opposition parties, affiliated figures: Iswaran

SINGAPORE — It is just a convergence or coincidence, possibly an unfortunate one, that the first four correction directions issued under Singapore’s ‘fake news’ law were directed at opposition parties or people affiliated with political parties, Communications and Information Minister S Iswaran said.

Communications and Information Minister S Iswaran told Parliament that the laws countering online falsehoods were not being directed only at certain types of people or organisations.

Communications and Information Minister S Iswaran told Parliament that the laws countering online falsehoods were not being directed only at certain types of people or organisations.

SINGAPORE — It is just a convergence or coincidence, possibly an unfortunate one, that the first four correction directions issued under Singapore’s ‘fake news’ law were directed at opposition parties or people affiliated with political parties, Communications and Information Minister S Iswaran said.

In Parliament on Monday (Jan 6), Mr Iswaran was responding to a follow-up question by Nominated Member of Parliament (NMP) Walter Theseira, who asked whether the identity of the person or entity making false statements matters. He said that it could seem as if the Government is setting up “speed traps where opposition politicians drive and not elsewhere”.

The Protection from Online Falsehoods and Manipulation Act (Pofma), which was passed in May 2018 and came into effect in October last year, allows government ministers to order what they consider to be false statements to either be corrected or taken down.

“That is a convergence. Some might say unfortunate convergence or coincidence. It may also indicate a certain pattern of communication that exists out there,” Mr Iswaran said, referring to the first few uses of Pofma.

Since the first correction direction was issued to Brad Bowyer — a member of opposition party Progress Singapore Party — by Finance Minister Heng Swee Keat on Nov 25 last year, three more have followed.

Home Affairs Minister K Shanmugam issued a directive to the States Times Review Facebook page — a website critical of the Singapore Government; Manpower Minister Josephine Teo took action against the Singapore Democratic Party; and Education Minister Ong Ye Kung ordered opposition party member Lim Tean to make corrections.

These took place within the space of one month.

However, Mr Iswaran said that while the first few Pofma actions have been directed at opposition political parties and its members or those affiliated with political parties, it does not mean that this will continue in the future.

“It’s about whether there is a falsehood, whether there is a public interest threshold, then what is the appropriate course of action,” he added.

NMP Anthea Ong asked whether the Pofma office also monitors non-partisan news sites and statements given that there is plenty of fake news of public interest which is not political in nature.

In reply, Mr Iswaran said: “If your point is that we are only training our sight on certain types of people and organisations, the answer is no.” 

He also said that the Pofma office is monitoring for false statements but resources are limited.

“But primarily, we are looking at cases that are egregious, and those will pop out quite naturally and we know what they are. And then we can deal with it,” he said.

This exchange arose after Ms Ong filed two parliamentary questions on the recent Pofma directives.

When asked by Ms Ong whether four Pofma actions in the space of one month could be considered far-reaching, Mr Iswaran said: “Is the use of legislation appropriate, measured and fit for purpose? I think the answer is yes.”

He added: “I don’t think you should go by the sheer number of times it is used in this period. I think that it is a confluence of factors that led to that.”

POLITICAL ADVERTISEMENTS

Workers’ Party MP Sylvia Lim also brought up the issue of online political advertisements and the rules surrounding them as set out in the Code of Practice for Transparency of Online Political Advertisements issued by the Pofma office.

Ms Lim questioned why the Pofma office would require information on details such as the copy of a political advertisement, its intended audience and the amount paid.

Mr Iswaran replied that the requirement is for the information to be made available by the internet intermediaries when required by the Pofma office, but it does not mean that the office would have access to it.

However, Ms Lim said that this could be a method for the ruling party to discover the election strategies of its political opponents as the office could obtain this information at any point in time, even if the advertisement presented no problems in terms of its content.

To this, Mr Iswaran said that Ms Lim is “barking up the wrong tree”.

Related topics

Pofma Politics Parliament fake news online falsehoods SDP Progress Singapore Party lim tean

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