POFMA Is Overkill

This article is adapted from a Facebook post by Ariffin Sha, Assistant Secretary General of the SPP.

A tale of two responses to fake news.

1. On January 22 2020, the Minister of Home Affairs (“MHA”) issued a Correction Direction under POFMA against The Online Citizen SG (“TOC”) for reporting on allegations made by Lawyers for Liberty (“L4L”).

2. On January 25 2020, the Immigration & Checkpoints Authority (“ICA”) posted a clarification on its Facebook Page in response to rumours relating to the coronavirus.

3. Interestingly, ICA did not resort to any measures under POFMA although it could have justifiably done so. In fact, I cannot think of a situation more appropriate for the Minister to exercise his powers under POFMA. After all, it is precisely during times of heightened tension where the spread of fake news (especially news that carries with it the potential to cause panic and alarm) should be curbed.

4. In relation to the case of TOC, I am informed that the editor had emailed MHA on 16 January to seek clarification on the LFL’s allegations. The MHA had no less than 7 days to respond to TOC’s email. However, the MHA eventually decided to opt to issue a Correction Direction under POFMA instead of simply responding to TOC’s email. I understand that Kirsten Han too sought clarification from MHA. Arguably, a simple response to their emails would have acheived the same effect without having the need to resort to the mechanisms provided for by POFMA.

5. Contrary to popular belief, a Correction Direction is anything but harmless. Section 32 of POFMA empowers the Government to declare a location to be a “declared online location” if the location is the subject of 3 or more correction directions. In other words, three strikes and you’re out. As a declared online location, the Government has the ability to block access to your location, control content and potentially restrict funding. Therefore, although complying with Correction Direction may seem reasonable, it would most certainly be disconcerting if Ministers resort to the mechanisms provided under POFMA as a first resort whenever an alleged false statement of fact is in circulation.

6. There is no need to use a sledgehammer to kill a fly. As the ICA has demonstrated, there is no need to invoke POFMA when a simple press release, Facebook post or email would achieve the same result. The ICA’s actions serve as evidence that the best antidote against fake news is facts, not the full force of the law.

7. I hope more Ministries can follow in the footsteps of ICA to exhaust other options available to them to curb the spread of fake news before resorting to POFMA. POFMA should only be used as a tool of last resort by Ministers when other measures have failed or may not be appropriate.

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