MOH uses fake news law to counter falsehoods

Health Minister Gan Kim Yong instructed the Protection from Online Falsehood and Manipulation Act Office to issue corrections against "multiple false statements" in a post that STR put up on Feb 13, 2020.
Health Minister Gan Kim Yong instructed the Protection from Online Falsehood and Manipulation Act Office to issue corrections against "multiple false statements" in a post that States Times Review put up on Feb 13, 2020.PHOTO: SCREENGRAB FROM GOV.SG

The States Times Review (STR) Facebook page was yesterday ordered under the fake news law to put up corrections alongside false statements it made about the coronavirus outbreak.

This is the second order issued against STR under the Protection from Online Falsehoods and Manipulation Act (Pofma) for bogus claims about the coronavirus crisis. STR had earlier falsely claimed that Singapore had run out of face masks.

To date, the law has been used to deal with five cases of falsehoods related to the outbreak of the coronavirus disease, known as Covid-19.

Health Minister Gan Kim Yong yesterday instructed the Pofma Office to issue a correction order over "multiple false statements" in a post that STR put up the day before.

The post is about the 30,000 Chinese work pass holders who have not returned to Singapore, and it was shared more than 300 times.

Among the erroneous claims are that Singapore has not been able to trace the sources of infection for any of the infected Covid-19 cases here.

The Government, describing the claims by STR as "entirely false", rebutted them point by point in a statement on its fact-checking website, Factually. On the sources of infection, the statement said the Ministry of Health (MOH) had in fact established through epidemiological investigations and contact tracing that 51 of the 58 people infected with the virus (as of yesterday afternoon) either had travelled to China or came from there, or had links to previously announced cases.

Contact tracing is under way for the remaining seven cases to see if there are similar links or travel history to China.

The STR also said the Government is "the only one" telling people not to wear masks.

This is not true, as the MOH's advice is in line with the World Health Organisation's guidance, and similar to advice given by the health authorities in countries such as the United States and Australia, said the government statement.

The MOH's advice is that people who are well do not need to wear a mask, but those with respiratory symptoms should don one to minimise the risk of infecting others.

 
 
 

STR made two other false claims - about the daily $100 allowance for workers on leave of absence (LOA) and Manpower Minister Josephine Teo's remarks about Chinese workers.

Rebutting the claims, the Government said Chinese work pass holders placed on a mandatory 14-day leave of absence "do not receive the $100 daily support". Though the LOA support programme covers all workers, regardless of nationality, it is employers who receive the support, it added.

These employers must have workers who travelled to China on or before Jan 31, and who were placed on leave of absence after returning to Singapore on or after Jan 31.

The Government also made clear that Mrs Teo never said she was working hard to bring more Chinese workers back to Singapore.

On the contrary, the Ministry of Manpower has put in place measures to slow down the return of affected work pass holders, such as requiring employers to get prior approval before their workers can return, said the statement. It has also rejected more applications than it has approved.

The STR had also said seven countries have since banned travel to Singapore owing to a lack of confidence in the measures taken so far to curb the spread of the virus.

But as of 8pm on Thursday, there had been no such bans by any countries, said the Government.

The STR Facebook page is run by Singaporean Alex Tan, who has received three Pofma orders so far since the laws against misinformation kicked in last October. He has not complied with any of the orders, and said he is now an Australian citizen.

Besides issuing the correction order to Mr Tan, the Pofma Office also issued a Targeted Correction Direction to Facebook yesterday, requiring the social media company to put up the corrections on the STR post.

The office had done the same in previous Pofma cases involving STR.

 
A version of this article appeared in the print edition of The Straits Times on February 15, 2020, with the headline 'MOH uses fake news law to counter falsehoods'. Print Edition | Subscribe