Singapore parliament passed the Protection from Online Falsehoods and Manipulation Act on May 8, 2019 amid concern that it contains provisions undermining free speech. Photo by Flickr user Teddy Sipaseuth (CC BY-SA 2.0)
Commonly known as the anti-fake news law, POFMA gives broad, unchecked powers to government ministers to determine what online information is “false” and demand that it be censored or corrected.
The Ministry of Law says the legislation will help stop the circulation of “deliberate online falsehoods” which it says are being used “to divide society, spread hate, and weaken democratic institutions.”
But media groups and human rights advocates see the law as another tool to suppress free speech in Singapore. The law will come into force in a national environment where free speech is already under threat, as seen in multiple recent defamation claims against independent media and commentators.
The proposal to make a law aimed at tackling false information was discussed during a parliamentary committee deliberation in 2018. POFMA was introduced in parliament on April 1, 2019. A total of 72 members of parliament voted in favor of the measure while nine opposed it.
Under the law, any government minister can compel website administrators, internet service providers, and even private chat groups to immediately correct or remove ‘fake news’ from their domains. But the law’s definition of what counts as fake or false is remarkably vague.
Article 2 states that “a statement may be found to be false if it is false or misleading, whether wholly or in part, and whether on its own or in the context in which it appears.”
Worker’s Party Non-Constituency MP Leon Perera identified three other provisions of the law which could be used to curtail the right to freedom of expression:
Section 2 – defining what a Minister deems a misleading presentation of facts, not only false claims of fact, as correctable;
Section 4(f) defining harmful falsehoods as including those that diminish confidence in the government; and