In a forum letter today, Law Minister K Shanmugam’s press secretary Teo Wan Gek asserted that the proposed Protection from Online Falsehoods and Manipulation Act (POFMA) will narrow the Government’s power instead of widening its authority, unlike what is perceived.
The Law Ministry tabled POFMA in Parliament, last month. The bill, which aims to provide the government with powers to act against online falsehoods to protect public interest, intends to give ministers the authority to determine what is an online falsehood.
The bill proposes that domain ministers can decide whether to take action under two conditions: when a false statement of fact has been communicated in Singapore through the Internet, and when it is in the public interest to intervene.
In a letter published by the national broadsheet today, Ms Teo wrote that the bill gives “narrower powers to the Government, compared with powers the Government already has, under existing legislation” and “greater oversight to the courts, compared with existing legislation.”
Asserting that the bill “does seek to scope down and calibrate the Government’s powers in key areas,” she said that POFMA “represents a shift in the Government’s approach, with the Government adopting a more measured and calibrated approach.”
In a second forum letter, also published today, Ms Teo added that “the powers proposed to be given to the Government under the Bill, and the public interest grounds on which the Government can exercise its powers, are actually narrower than the Government’s existing powers.
“And the Bill proposes greater oversight for the courts than is the position under existing laws. In key areas, the Bill narrows, rather than extends, the Government’s powers.”
The press secretary’s remark that the proposed bill narrows the Government’s power comes as figures and organisations from various quarters have expressed concerns over the bill.
The fact that the proposed bill gives ministers the power to trigger actions has irked some Singaporeans, even though the Government has said that this decentralised approach is meant to ensure that online falsehoods are dealt with speedily.
Clause 61 of the draft bill, which states that “The Minister may, by order in the Gazette, exempt any person or class of persons from any provision of this Act,” has also drawn flak since this could potentially mean that the Minister could arbitrarily decide who is liable for “fake news” and who is not.
Several journalists, including noted British journalist Clare Rewcastle-Brown of the Sarawak Report, have since petitioned the Government to withdraw the bill. International publications like the Financial Times (FT) and CNN also criticised the bill. FT’s editorial baord went so far as to call the “disturbing” fake news law a “mistake”.
Nearly 30 civil society, community and arts groups also registered concerns over the bill. Echoing the opposition and caution sounded by other groups, AWARE also detailed how the Act could stymie the research and advocacy work carried out by itself and other non-governmental organisations in Singapore.
Organisations like Human Rights Watch and the Asia Internet Coalition (AIC) have also expressed worry over the bill. The AIC, an industry association made up of leading internet and technology companies, such as Google, Facebook, Twitter, LinkedIn, Apple, eBay, Expedia and Paypal, said that this sort of “overreaching bill” could pose a risk to the freedoms of expression and speech.
Parliament will gather for a second reading of the draft bill on 6 May. Minister for Communications and Information S Iswaran recently said that the bill will become law in the second half of this year.