Parliament: Use of fake news law against opposition politicians is 'the consequence of their actions', says Iswaran

Minister for Communications and Information S. Iswaran said the focus is on whether there is a falsehood and whether it is in the public interest to act against it, in applying Singapore's fake news law. PHOTO: ST FILE

SINGAPORE - In applying Singapore's fake news law, the focus is on whether there is a falsehood and whether it is in the public interest to act against it, rather than the identity of the person or entity responsible for the falsehood, said Minister for Communications and Information S. Iswaran on Monday (Jan 6).

The fact that the first few directions to correct the falsehoods, issued under the Protection from Online Falsehoods and Manipulation Act (Pofma), were made against individuals who are either politicians, affiliated with political parties or political parties themselves is a "convergence, some might say an unfortunate convergence or coincidence", he told Parliament.

"If you look at it in totality, we have to take into account the overall impact, then we have to consider what is the proportionate response, and then be prepared to take it.

"If it so happens that some of the people involved are politically affiliated, that's just the consequence of their actions," he added.

He was replying to Nominated MPs Anthea Ong and Walter Theseira on the use of Pofma, which has been invoked four times since it came into effect on Oct 2 last year.

Ms Ong asked how the threshold for assessing public interest is determined and measured under Pofma, and whether Mr Iswaran's ministry would consider recommending that ministers state which public interest criteria under Pofma are met, and how so, when requesting for a direction to be issued.

Associate Professor Theseira asked whether the identity of the person or entity responsible for the falsehood matters when deciding whether it is in the public interest to act against it.

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Three of the four cases involved opposition parties or their members, including the Singapore Democratic Party, People's Voice leader Lim Tean and Progress Singapore Party member Brad Bowyer.

Pofma was also used to correct a Facebook post made by Mr Alex Tan, the administrator of the States Times Review website.

Mr Iswaran said these four have made false statements of fact about "issues of fundamental importance to Singaporeans".

He added: "The falsehoods allege that the Government mismanaged public funds, abused police powers, and discriminated against Singapore citizens in favour of foreigners."

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Failing to deal decisively with such falsehoods will erode or even undermine public trust in Singapore's institutions, with serious consequences for its democracy, said the minister.

The Government and MPs have a duty to ensure that Singaporeans are not misled or misinformed by such falsehoods, he said, adding that correction directions have been issued in all of the Pofma cases so far.

"These directions require that the facts be placed alongside the original posts, so that Singaporeans can read both versions and draw their own conclusions," Mr Iswaran said.

He also said ministers who order directions under Pofma are required to provide the legal basis for determining a statement is a falsehood.

"In the recent cases, the falsehoods and the reasons for using Pofma were made clear in the clarifications that were issued by the respective ministries.

"If the recipient of the Pofma direction disputes the facts, quick and inexpensive recourse to the courts is available. These provisions ensure transparency and accountability in the Pofma process," he added.

Ms Ong asked if the ministry would consider having a central listing on the Pofma website of all issued directions.

Mr Iswaran said all corrections issued under Pofma are already compiled in a section of the Government's fact-checking website Factually.

"In addition, the Pofma Office website has a list of the press releases issued together with Pofma directions."

Ms Ong also asked if the Pofma Office is monitoring and flagging fake news that is not partisan, which may also be in the public interest.

She cited the example of the Nussu-NUS Students United Facebook page, which spoofs the National University of Singapore Students' Union (Nussu).

Mr Iswaran said: "There is some effort to monitor, but primarily, I think we are looking at those cases which are egregious, and those that are egregious will pop up naturally."

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