Right to let ministers act swiftly on fake news, says Iswaran

Correction orders were issued on Jan 31, 2020 in two separate cases related to the coronavirus outbreak.
Correction orders were issued on Jan 31, 2020 in two separate cases related to the coronavirus outbreak. PHOTO: GOV.SG

The spread of fake news during the ongoing coronavirus outbreak has underscored the need for swift action so that such falsehoods do not gain traction and mislead Singaporeans, said Communications and Information Minister S. Iswaran.

And the use of the fake news law during this period has reinforced the Government's convictions to vest the powers to act in the executive, he added yesterday.

The Protection from Online Falsehoods and Manipulation Act (Pofma) gives ministers the authority to decide on falsehoods and order corrections or take-downs, among other actions - a point of contention for some people when the law was debated last year.

Asked about this authority yesterday, Mr Iswaran said: "Our Covid-19 experience has reinforced, if anything, that conviction, and certainly, we have no reason to question the reason for doing so."

The issue came up during the debate on his ministry's budget, with Mr Cedric Foo (Pioneer) asking: "From your recent experience using Pofma... do you feel even more strongly that really, this is a job best left for the executive branch?"

Mr Iswaran replied: "In a situation like an epidemic, it is essential that our population stays calm, gets advice and information from reliable sources, and is able to then take appropriate measures. In that context, we have found Pofma, the tools and also the... authority that is vested in the executive to exercise those tools to have been very effective."

This prompted Workers' Party chief Pritam Singh (Aljunied GRC) to reiterate his party's opposition to Pofma. "Indeed, you have instances of fake news in the case of epidemics... certainly, they have to be taken down swiftly. But I suppose there are different modalities that swift action can manifest itself in," Mr Singh said. "And the WP's position is there are still other options, apart from executive orders that can eventuate in that outcome."

Since the law came into effect last October, the Government has used it against various distortions or fabrications, such as claims that Singapore had run out of masks and that the police had abused their power.

Mr Iswaran said such falsehoods can sow fear, cause panic and erode trust in institutions if Singaporeans are duped into believing them.

He added that the Government had sought to place factual corrections next to the false posts, allowing people to see both and draw their own conclusions. More serious measures were taken to block the States Times Review Facebook page after it repeatedly posted falsehoods and refused to carry corrections.

Mr Iswaran said the Government is resolute in its efforts to uphold society's values and common spaces.

"Today, the online space is where our hard-won cohesion could fray and splinter... It would have been much harder to quell the spread of misinformation and keep the calm of our society without this," he said.

A version of this article appeared in the print edition of The Straits Times on March 04, 2020, with the headline 'Right to let ministers act swiftly on fake news, says Iswaran'. Print Edition | Subscribe