In a speech at Internet Society Singapore Chapter’s educational seminar on April 25, Media Studies professor Cherian George expressed his concern that the proposed bill on online falsehoods in Singapore will only serve to strengthen a culture of self-censorship in the nation.
George called the bill “probably the world’s boldest and most elaborate attempt to regulate disinformation.” He acknowledges that since the Protection from Online Falsehoods and Manipulation Act (POFMA) would empower ministers to “close loopholes that malicious actors might exploit”, it is “a source of comfort for Singapore’s security-minded officials and many of its citizens.”
He also acknowledges that the government has been responsive in answering questions from critics alarmed by the vague language and broad scope of POFMA, which he believes will be passed in Parliament in May.
However, George’s main consent is the political culture in which the bill will b0e introduced, as well as how officials and the public will react to it.
“POFMA’s imprecise wording and over-broad scope leave a lot to the imagination of both the ministers who will use its powers, and citizens who are trying to stay clear of trouble. This is why political culture is key. Officials will be guided by pre-existing norms and conventions when deciding how to use their new powers. For the same reason, writers and publishers calculating how the new law might affect them will not only weigh the government’s words about the bill but also its actions over the years.”
What may result is greater self-censorship, according to George.
“On this score, the evidence is not encouraging. Self-censorship is already pervasive, with people holding back criticism for no other reason than fear of the personal costs that speaking up would entail.”
To illustrate his point, he discussed three features in the proposed bill that he finds troubling.
The first is the sanitization of media reports. An example of this was when the Land Transport Authority (LTA) requested that the media refrain from using the words “crash” or “collision” in the context of two trains bumping into each other at Joo Koon metro station. Instead, the media were asked to write that the two trains “came into contact,” although 36 people were hurt in the incident.
George called this as “probably just the tip of an iceberg of routine impression management by Singapore’s establishment, relying on veiled threats as well as self-censorship by media gatekeepers. If officials have grown accustomed to operating in such an environment, we cannot lightly dismiss the possibility that some would be tempted to apply a very low bar when deciding whether to use POFMA’s powers.”
His second point of concern is “the troubling tendency in government to up the ante by accusing critics of lying, fabrication, having a political agenda, and so on,” citing the example of the Health Ministry coming down on Straits Times writer Rachel Chang during the delayed news of hepatitis infections at Singapore General Hospital. When Chang wrote in an opinion column that “civil servants were sparing their political masters the burden of dealing with what could become an election issue,” the newspaper’s editor had to issue an apology on the threat of legal action.
George’s third point concerns the government’s “track record of penalising critics”.
He writes, “not all of them, every time, but regularly enough to give academics, journalists and others cause for pause before speaking truth to power. It is widely assumed that publicly contradicting the government on issues that it considers important – everything from foreign relations to social inequality, from constitutional principles to municipal matters – can have career-limiting consequences even if one has broken no law.”
Citing the case of Professor Kevin Tan, one of Singapore’s only internationally-renowned constitutional law scholars, who was blocked from getting full-time employment at the National University of Singapore because he had once been chided by founding Prime Minister Lee Kuan Yew in Parliament. This had occurred 20 years ago.
Ultimately, George believes that the indirect impact of the proposed online falsehoods and manipulation bill will be greater than its direct effects.
He says, at the end of his speech, “The government-knows-best principle that has been so emphatically enshrined in the new law is likely to embolden public servants to dampen inconvenient criticism by whatever means – and they have several.
There will also be an indirect impact on academics, journalists, and other citizens. For every one who is actually at risk of violating POFMA there will be countless others who, aware of the breadth of the law and the amount of discretionary power it vests in officials, will simply decide that there are easier ways to live than to write about Singapore.
Even if online falsehoods and manipulation were the single most important threat facing Singapore —which, POFMA in its current form is counterproductive. All serious analyses of the problem, including by the 2018 Parliamentary Select Committee that led up to the bill, agree that it is not enough to weaken bad-faith communicators; we also need to strengthen the institutions whose job it is to exercise public reason. In its zeal to fight the true enemy, POFMA threatens to injure allies in both academia and media.”/ TISG