The Protection from Online Falsehoods and Manipulation Bill (POFMA) of Singapore was passed by Parliament on 8 May 2019, heightening fears of further curtailment of freedom of expression in the city-state once it is fully enacted into a law.
The Southeast Asian Press Alliance (SEAPA) echoes the concerns raised by other press freedom and free expression advocates across the globe on this draconian bill that, inter alia, grants overarching powers to state authorities in combating disinformation, potentially leaving its citizens, particularly the media, in an even more precarious state once a new law of this kind comes into force.
The proposed legislation is fundamentally flawed on many counts. Essentially it goes against the grain of international standards on freedom of expression.
Article 19 of the Universal Declaration on Human Rights states: “Everyone has the right to freedom of opinion and expression; this right includes freedom to hold opinions without interference and to seek, receive and impart information and ideas through any media and regardless of frontiers.”
The United Nations Human Rights Committee declares that “freedom of opinion and freedom of expression are indispensable conditions for the full development of the person.
“They constitute the foundation stone for every free and democratic society. The two freedoms are closely related, with freedom of expression providing the vehicle for the exchange and development of opinions.”
While the bill, or so authorities claim, governs only statements of fact and not opinions, it fails to provide sufficient guidance to ensure ‘facts’ will be appropriately distinguished from opinions. Hence it proffers a very real possibility that the anticipated law will be arbitrarily applied and abused by those tasked to implement it.
Overall, the bill does not meet the permissible restrictions laid out by the International Covenant on Civil and Political Rights.
According to the Covenant restrictions provided by law must be “formulated with sufficient precision to enable an individual to regulate his or her conduct accordingly.” Regrettably such “precision” is missing in the bill.
It also asserts that it “must not confer unfettered discretion for the restriction of freedom of expression on those charged with its execution.”
The draft law bill seeks to protect ‘public health’, ‘public safety’, ‘public tranquility’ but stops short of defining them. This ”leaves open a worryingly wide scope of interpretation by government authorities,” says the International Commission of Jurists.
“While ‘public safety’ is a legitimate purpose for a restriction, ‘public tranquility’ is vague, and ‘public interest’ is overbroad.”
The Covenant further states that any restrictions imposed by law on freedom of expression “must be necessary to protect legitimate aims”. The bill does not measure up to this standard for failing to provide clear definitions and guidelines.
The bill’s definition of falsehood is another grave cause for concern. It says a statement is false if it is “false or misleading, whether wholly or in part, and whether on its own or in the context in which it appears.” This is hardly a definition, because it uses the same word whose definition is sought in the first place, thereby shirking the responsibility to explain its meaning.
And by what measure does a statement become false and by whose standards?
The “unfettered” discretion that the bill grants to the government in identifying “false statements of facts” can be used against individuals, including journalists, whose ‘statements it will deem as “false” because they do not measure up to some nebulous standards.
As United Nations Special Rapporteur on the Promotion and Protection of the Right to Freedom of Opinion and Expression David Kaye said in his letter to Singapore Prime Minister Lee Hsien Loong: “In my experience as Special Rapporteur, I have seen laws against ‘false information’ be used to target journalists, activists, and others, and the proliferation of such laws are cause for grave concern.”
The imposition of disproportionate penalties, which include blocking access to “falsehoods” online, payment of fines, and serving of jail time, will have far more chilling effects on freedom of expression compared to existing legislation and regulations that by themselves are already deeply repressive.
Disinformation and its insidious effects on society require well-calibrated, carefully thought-out solutions. Walking down the legislative path that makes the government the sole and final arbiter of truth in dealing with this global menace can never be the answer, in part or in whole.
It has been said time and again, and there’s no gainsaying it this time: Freedom of expression should be upheld, protected, and enhanced rather than curtailed and muzzled.
We ask the government of Singapore to withdraw the bill and explore meaningful and proactive measures to deal with misinformation and disinformation in ways that will not run roughshod over, and keep a tighter lid on, the right to freedom of expression in the country.