Washington Post rapped for 'perpetuating false allegations' on Pofma

The Washington Post article had pointed out that Pofma, among other things, could have a "chilling effect on online free expression" - points which Mr Ashok Kumar Mirpuri, Singapore's ambassador to the US, has rebutted. PHOTO: SCREENGRAB FROM WASHINGTONPOST.COM

The Government has called out The Washington Post for "perpetuating false allegations" after the American newspaper ran only parts of a letter from Singapore's ambassador to the United States.

Mr Ashok Kumar Mirpuri had responded to a Dec 2 article in the online edition of the Post about Facebook complying with the Government's directive to issue a correction under the Protection from Online Falsehoods and Manipulation Act (Pofma) last month.

The article had pointed out that Pofma could have a "chilling effect on online free expression" and "open the door to broad government censorship", points which Mr Mirpuri rebutted.

Yesterday evening, the Ministry of Communications and Information (MCI) made public a letter that Mr Bernard Toh, director of the ministry's information policy division, had written to The Washington Post publisher Fred Ryan.

Mr Toh had noted that the Post declined to publish Mr Mirpuri's response on the grounds that it ran only letters on articles that appeared in its print edition. The Government was then directed to the article's author, Ms Cat Zakrzewski.

But Ms Zakrzewski declined to carry the ambassador's response in full, including only a "brief quote" from the letter that ignored the crux of the reply, Mr Toh said.

"It is ironic that the Post should have responded thus, given that your article had accused us of censorship.

"By refusing to carry our letter or report it more adequately, the Post is perpetuating false allegations."

Mr Toh added that the ministry was making the letter public "in the interest of transparency".

The Post's article was published shortly after Facebook put up a notice on a post on the States Times Review page, reading: "Facebook is legally required to tell you that the Singapore Government says this post has false information."

In his letter to the Post, Mr Mirpuri said censorship entails banning or suppressing offending material.

But the Government has "only required Facebook to append to the offending post a link to a factual correction. The original post remains intact", he noted.

"Readers can read it together with the Government's response, and decide for themselves which tells the truth," he said.

"This can no more have 'a chilling effect on online free expression' than your publishing this letter can stun The Washington Post into silence."

Mr Mirpuri wrote that Singapore, as an English-speaking, multiracial and multi-religious society open to the world, is more vulnerable to the threat of online falsehoods than most.

"Pofma seeks to restore balance to the debate, by requiring tech companies to carry clarifications to reach the same target audience as the false statements."

Part of this response was included in the Post's article.

Mr Toh wrote that Ms Zakrzewski had "ignored the crux of (the Government's) response: that contrary to allegations that the Singapore Government had censored a Facebook post that it deemed to be false, the original post remained intact and accessible".

The Government also issued a response to Mr Phil Robertson, the deputy Asia director of Human Rights Watch.

The non-governmental organisation is headquartered in New York and investigates human rights abuses around the world.

Mr Robertson was quoted in the Post's article as saying that Pofma is designed "specifically to put Internet companies like Facebook in a headlock to comply with these rights-abusing edicts".

"With huge, onerous fines and the possibility of even prison time, it's going to be hard for any company to not comply," he said.

In a separate letter to Mr Robertson, which was also made public yesterday, Mr Toh reiterated points that Mr Mirpuri made in his response to the Post, including that Human Rights Watch had been invited to appear before the parliamentary Select Committee on Deliberate Online Falsehoods last year.

The Select Committee was convened to come up with suggestions on how Singapore can tackle fake news, with the public encouraged to write in on causes, consequences and possible countermeasures.

Mr Toh noted that Human Rights Watch had originally accepted the invitation.

However, it had declined after being told it would also be questioned about a report issued in December 2017, which stated that the Singapore Government was suppressing freedom of expression.

The organisation was offered eight alternative dates and the option of speaking via videoconference, Mr Toh said, but "repeatedly came up with excuses to decline".

He added that the Government is willing to debate the issue with Human Rights Watch at any university forum in Singapore.

"To ensure full publicity for this debate, we will livestream this exchange on Facebook," Mr Toh added. "We hope that you do not refuse our invitation yet again."

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A version of this article appeared in the print edition of The Straits Times on December 17, 2019, with the headline Washington Post rapped for 'perpetuating false allegations' on Pofma. Subscribe