The proposal of the Protection from Online Falsehoods and Manipulation Act (POFMA) has raised significant concerns from academics, journalists, NGOs, bloggers, and average citizens. Much attention has been focused on the scope of the legislation. Many have argued that the law could severely restrict not only freedom of the press but also freedom of speech in Singapore overall.
The law empowers ministers to decide what is fake news
In a brief to reporters on the proposed bill, Minister for Communications and Information S. Iswaran laid out in no uncertain terms who gets to decide what is “fake news”. Minister Iswaran publicly declared that the Government will make the decision on what is deemed false under proposed laws to fight the spread of online falsehoods.
“The domain minister, advised by his officials, is in the best position to decide whether something is a falsehood and assess its impact on public interest.”
Once the false content is deemed to be harmful to public interest, the minister will work with the competent authority in the Infocomm Media Development Authority of Singapore (IMDA) on the action to take. For instance, he can order corrections to run alongside the false content or ask for it to be taken down. He can also order the blocking of accounts or sites that are spreading the untruths.
Given that the People’s Action Party (PAP) is the government of the day and has a near monopoly in Parliament, the proposed fake news law will give the PAP far-reaching powers to decide what kinds of stories are fake news and if it is a threat to public interest. A single political party will have an effective monopoly on truth.
The law gives ministers the power to exempt any person/group from the law
Buried within the text of the proposed law, lies a powerful clause. Clause 61 of Protection from Online Falsehoods and Manipulation Act (POFMA) provides ministers the power to grant exemptions from the bill:
61. The Minister may, by order in the Gazette, exempt any person or class of persons from any provision of this Act.-Clause 61
This effectively gives the ruling PAP unrivalled power to decide who is excused from the proposed law. ie. some people or groups may continue to publish information that is knowingly false with the assurance that the government will close both eyes. In the words of George Orwell, All animals are equal, but some animals are more equal than others.