Singapore—In response to an opinion piece activist Kirsten Han wrote that was published in The New York Times (NYT) on January 21, Singapore’s ambassador to the United States Ashok Kumar Mirpuri has written a letter to the NYT’s editor rebutting the points that Ms Han made, which was published on NYT’s online edition on January 27.
According to Ambassador Mirpuri, Ms Han “is wrong on several counts.”
In Ms Han’s piece, entitled “Want to Criticize Singapore? Expect a ‘Correction Notice’” she wrote that POFMA—the Protection from Online Falsehoods and Manipulation Act—which was passed in Parliament in May this year and was implemented starting from October, has been invoked by the Government a number of times and that “there is now reason to fear that the law is, instead, a tool to quiet dissent.”
Mr Mirpuri clarified, first of all, that correction notices are only issued for “deliberate online falsehoods” and not for writing that is critical of Singapore, such as Ms Han’s article.
Since Ms Han had written that as of the time her piece was published every POFMA “order so far has been directed at an opposition party or politician, or a government critic,” the ambassador replied with “Ms. Han asks whether Singapore is cracking down on fake news or the opposition. That depends on the answer to another question: Which are true: the corrections or the offending posts?”
Mr Mirpuri follows this up by writing pointedly, “If corrections remain unchallenged, the question is not why opposition activists were the subject of corrections, but why they posted so many false statements in the first place.”
He adds that all the articles that have been issued correction directions are still available online and that “No one’s speech has been curtailed.”
The ambassador ends his letter with, “Surely, enabling people to decide for themselves whether the original post or the correction is true is what freedom of speech is about.”
The day after Ms Han’s opinion piece was published, she was issued a correction order under POFMA as the government had taken exception to allegations from Malaysian human rights’ group Lawyers for Liberty, concerning the “brutal executions” of inmates in Changi Prison.
Ms Han, along with The Online Citizen and Yahoo Singapore, had been directed to add a correction notice to posts they had shared. “They will be required to carry a correction notice alongside their posts or articles, stating that their posts or articles contain falsehoods,” the MHA statement said.
To which, Ms Han has complied, although she wrote that she had reached out to the Singapore Prison Service for comments after the piece from Lawyers for Liberty came out, but received no response from them.
In a Facebook post she wrote, “I thought it was important for there to be more information about what actually happens in the execution chamber. As someone who has been invested in the issue of the death penalty for a long time, I was extremely interested in doing a story taking into account both LFL and the prison’s statements.
When I received no response, I followed up with the prison on 17 January. Still no response.
Instead of responding to media queries, a POFMA order was made instead.”
Last April, Mr Mirpuri wrote to the Washington Post (WP) also in defence of POFMA, citing other countries that have either adopted or are considering laws that would fight online falsehoods, such as Germany and France. The Ambassador also highlighted how vulnerable Singapore is, since it is an an “open, English-speaking, multiracial and multi-religious city-state in a rapidly changing region.”
Mr Mirpuri wrote to WP after a piece was published by Washington Post’s Editorial Board on April 5, 2019, entitled, “Is Singapore fighting fake news or free speech?” In it, the author/s write that there is a thin line between the two, and that endeavouring to combat online falsehoods comes with certain risks. -/TISG