Thum Ping Tjin, New Naratif website issued correction order over video on Pofma

The Pofma Office issued correction directions to historian Thum Ping Tjin as well as the New Naratif website. PHOTO: SCREENGRAB FROM GOV.SG

SINGAPORE - Historian Thum Ping Tjin has been asked to put up corrections to a video in which he asserted that Singapore's fake news law renders all criticism of the Government illegal.

Describing this claim and several others as false and misleading, the Protection from Online Falsehoods and Manipulation Act (Pofma) Office issued on Wednesday (May 13) correction directions to Dr Thum and the New Naratif, a website he founded.

"Contrary to what Mr Thum suggests, people are free to criticise and disagree with the Government," said the Government on its fact-checking website Factually.

Dr Thum had posted the video on New Naratif's YouTube channel on May 8, as part of his online video series The Show with PJ Thum, in which he analyses and criticises government policies and actions.

Under the correction direction, initiated by Minister for Law K. Shanmugam, the historian will have to run a correction notice alongside the video linking to the facts.

The Law Ministry noted in a statement that the video itself will remain fully accessible to the public.

"Thus, members of the public will be in a position to view the video, read the correction notice and clarifications, and come to their own conclusions," it said.

In his video, Dr Thum had questioned the Government's real reason for Pofma.

He alleged that the law exists to silence critics and opposition, and is so sweeping that "even if one bit is found to be wrong or misleading, the whole statement can be considered false".

For instance, omitting a fact can render a statement misleading and since it was "impossible to include every single fact about anything in the statement... every statement can be considered false in some way".

The Government said it was untrue that an entire statement will be automatically considered false, because part of it is false. It added that the legal criteria for establishing falsity of a statement has been developed by the courts over centuries.

The Government also reiterated that Pofma does not apply to opinions.

It added that Dr Thum is clearly aware of the scope of Pofma as he had shrugged off suggestions that his own criticism would be subject to the law, saying it applies only to "false statements of fact".

Despite this, he had continued to put out misleading statements about the law, said the Government, adding: "Thus his statements, that Pofma can be used in respect of all statements, are entirely cynical, and he obviously knows that they are untrue."

Other claims of Dr Thum which the Factually website singled out were: Pofma makes all criticisms of the Government illegal; there is no recourse in law for the courts to overturn a Pofma direction if it is an abuse of the powers under Pofma; and ministers from the ruling People's Action Party have the last word on the truth.

To these, the Government said Pofma does not cover criticisms which are opinions and those that are based on true facts.

"It is untrue (and absurd) to say that Pofma makes all criticisms of the Government illegal. Before and after Pofma came into force, there have been criticisms of the Government (including by Mr Thum), on a regular basis. They have not been the subject of Pofma," it said.

It added that the courts have judicial oversight of the exercise of powers under Pofma, and as such it is false to assert Pofma "means that the truth will be whatever the party says it is".

It also pointed out that the orders under Pofma are made by the Government, though Dr Thum had referred to "party".

Another claim he made in the video was that the law had been used against the Singapore Democratic Party's (SDP) "interpretation of statistical data".

The Government said: "This is also false. The issue was not about interpretation of statistics. The SDP had made a direct, false statement."

The SDP had failed in its court bid to reverse the correction directions which it received in December last year over assertions that a rising proportion of Singapore PMETs were getting retrenched. Statistics from the Ministry of Manpower had showed otherwise.

Citing this, the Government said the High Court had found there was no basis for the directions to be set aside because the SDP had made false statements of fact.

The Government also said Pofma has been used to deal with falsehoods that have suggested, among other things, that the Government is mismanaging public funds and favouring foreigners over locals, which can erode trust in public institutions and harm society.

It added that the law was also used against falsehoods related to Covid-19, and had allowed such fabrications to be corrected speedily.

Also, referring to Dr Thum's claim that "past PAP governments have spread misinformation to silence critics, like in Operation Spectrum", the 1987 crackdown on an alleged Marxist conspiracy to overthrow the Government, the Government said: "These are his opinions (and thus not subject to a Pofma Direction). Similar claims have been refuted elsewhere."

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