Singapore: Social media companies forced to cooperate with abusive fake news law

The Singapore authorities are ramping up their use of a repressive “fake news” law to silence critics and opponents ahead of elections, Amnesty International said today, as Facebook expressed concerns over being forced to comply with an order to block the page of a news site.

The Protection of Online Falsehoods and Manipulation Bill (POFMA) came into effect in October 2019, and since then has been repeatedly used to target critics and political opponents.

On 17 February, Singapore’s Minister for Communications and Information, S Iswaran, ordered Facebook to deny social-media users in Singapore access to the Facebook page of States Times Review, an alternative media site which has been critical of the government. 

“When Singapore’s draconian fake news law was passed, Amnesty and others warned of its potential to be abused by the Singapore government and its notoriously litigious ruling party,” said Nicholas Bequelin, Amnesty International’s Director for East and South-East Asia and the Pacific.

Social media companies are being forced to comply with Singapore’s silencing of political opponents
Nicholas Bequelin, Director for East and South-East Asia

“The targeting of States Times Review is the latest proof that this law is simply a tool for censorship. Social media companies are being forced to comply with Singapore’s suppression of criticism online and the silencing of political opponents.”

General elections in Singapore are due before April 2021 but could be brought forward to this year.

POFMA provides for severe criminal penalties, including up to 10 years’ imprisonment, for anyone found guilty of breaking the law. It also requires social media companies such as Facebook to remove content or display prominent corrections at the government’s direction on their platforms, or face fines of up to SGD 1 million (US$730,000).

The law took effect in October 2019. The following month, authorities issued the first directive against an opposition party member who posted a message on Facebook criticising investment decisions by Singapore sovereign wealth fund Temasek. Under the directive, a Singapore Progress party member was ordered to post a “correction notice” on his original message saying that it contained “false statements of fact” and to link to a government website which contained the “correct facts”. The following four directives issued in 2019 also related to criticism of the government by people linked to the political opposition.

In January 2020, authorities claimed it was a ‘coincidence’ that the first cases were directed at political opponents.

At least six POFMA directives have been issued this year. Two relate to allegations of unlawful methods of executions carried out in Singapore’s Changi prison, and four relate to information circulating about the coronavirus. The directive against the States Times Review Facebook page followed several refusals by the website’s editor to comply with orders to post corrections, including to information it shared about Coronavirus. The editor of the States Times Review has since said that they will transfer ownership to another website.

“So far, POFMA directives have been little more than tools of pro-government spin. With Singapore’s elections looming, more and more journalists, activists and political opponents are at risk of being caught up in POFMA’s repressive net,” said Nicholas Bequelin.

“The law is vaguely worded and can be wielded completely at whim by the government to supress any form of dissent. Singapore must abolish this law and ensure every individual can exercise their right to freedom of expression without fear of reprisals.”

Background

In January, Singapore’s Minister for Communication and Information stated that “the first few POFMA actions appeared to have been issued against individuals who are either politicians or affiliated with political parties, or political parties. I would say that that is a convergence, some might say unfortunate convergence or coincidence.” He added: “If it so happens that some of the people involved are politically affiliated, that’s just the consequence of their actions.”

Human rights groups, including Amnesty International, have strongly criticized POFMA. Introduced by the government to supposedly “protect society” from online falsehoods created by “malicious actors,” the law gives the authorities excessive and overly broad powers to clamp down on dissenting views.

While the government argues that the law is necessary to combat online misinformation, it clearly contravenes Singapore’s international obligations in respect to freedom of expression, and does not include public interest clauses.