News Reports

The execution of Pofma

So the fake news law has been invoked four times, each as insipid as the next. I had thought the first few salvos would be clear-cut examples of what is true or false, something that we can all get behind. Also, I had thought it would be about false statements that will rattle society to its foundations.

But no.

The first one, against opposition politician Brad Bowyer, was about, according to the G, how his whole Facebook post, which does have at least one clear boo-boo, misleads people to think that the G controls the commercial decisions of Temasek Holdings and Government Investment Corporation of Singapore. The second one is levelled at States Times Review which alleged that a whistleblower had been arrested. The third was about the Singapore Democratic Party’s confused understanding of retrenchment numbers and the last was how the big picture context on the education of Singaporeans vis-a-vis foreigners was not taken into account.

Before anyone starts nit-picking my summaries or that I am ignoring specific substantial points and providing a misleading picture, I attach here the link to  Factually, the G’s website, where its correction orders have been placed.

To re-cap, Pofma defines a “false statement of fact” as a false or misleading statement which a reasonable person would consider to be a representation of fact. This can be wholly or in part, and whether on its own or in the context in which it appears.

We’ve been focused so much on what is false that we’ve hardly paid attention to what is misleading. Any writer knows that you can present the facts in any way or what is in journalistic parlance known as, the angle. Call it the coloured truth, but still based on facts. Also, any writer knows that the newsmaker referred to would be ultra-sensitive to how a picture has been painted that he or she thinks is contrary to the message being put out.

But I am getting ahead of myself here. There is the second limb of Pofma, which is whether Pofma has been applied in the public interest. The law says this is about whether those false or misleading statement were prejudicial to security, public health, safety, tranquillity, public finance, relations with foreign countries, influence election outcomes, incite enmity and hatred among groups of people and finally, diminish public confidence in any State organ.

Since that’s pretty broad, the issue then is about how prejudicial or dangerous those false or misleading statements are that would require the G to step in.

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I would have thought the G would be savvy enough to point out fake news that no one can argue against, such as fake photographs of collapsed buildings or a bomb explosion somewhere in Singapore take never took place – at least for the initial cases. Even a health scare that some food item is tainted would have made it into my books. Instead, the four correction directives are more akin to the G’s usual “right of reply” – but backed by law.

Recall that the Newspaper and Printing Presses Act was amended in the 80s to compel foreign publications to run the G’s side of the story to any of its offending or erroneous articles – on pain of circulation restrictions and blanked-out advertisements. They had to run the replies in full.

The strategy was about hitting the media in the pocket. The late Prime Minister Lee Kuan Yew was upfront and honest about his intentions.

Pofma, however, has been portrayed as a necessary weapon to protect the public from fake news purveyors . We were fed information about how misinformation had led to some really terrible outcomes in other countries.  And then we have these four limp/lame cases targeted at opposition politicians and parties…

Are they really corrections or Government rebuttals/responses/assertions? Is it so terrible for the public to believe that Temasek or GIC is Government-controlled? (And they will continue to do so anyway.) Do people agree that government spending on education should be taken into account when talking about scholarships and bursaries for local and foreign students? How much context is enough? Is the wrong use of proportions really worthy of the use of the law?

The initial cases disappoint because there are too many grey areas that people can argue over. It has become a case of “The Government has said so, so challenge it if you dare.”

I can’t help but think that Pofma is a stroke of genius on the part of the G, as it now finally has a tool to compel the telling of its side of the story, and add a little hectoring as well. There will be no more fights in court about whether a news site should or should not append its response, because there is the pain of a fine or jail time for non-compliance. (Later, you can appeal the decision but you must comply – or else)

Some people will say I am splitting hairs, but I think it is important for the G to be scrupulous in its use of Pofma – lest more cynicism builds up over the “real” reason for its use and we begin to behave like the people who ignored The Boy who cried Wolf.

Looking at the examples, the G could have simply continued the practice of giving official responses, rather than get what it wants the Pofma way.  Engaging people is pretty standard fare for any government anywhere in the world. In fact, the G (except for the CPF Board) very seldom engages online commentators and it’s quite sad that these initial forays have to be backed by the law. Yes, engagement is tiring and takes time but that’s part and parcel of political work. I also note that one reason for Pofma is that it is fast-acting. The initial cases, however, don’t even seem to bear marks of urgency. The first Pofma, for example, was issued 12 days after the post was published.

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Now, the G is making much about how it isn’t curbing free speech (so get it right Washington Post and The Economist!). These are correction orders and people can still read the original posts. That’s true. Some people actually laud it as fair. Now that we’ve seen it in practice,  I think it’s just lazy engagement.

If members of a neutral body had charge of Pofma, would they have lit upon the four cases for action? I doubt it. Why use the law when the public interest element is low, and the public is probably not even interested? The agencies should do their own engagement.

Would the body have tried to impute motives like this? “These false and misleading statements by the SDP have a singular objective – to stoke fear and anxiety among local PMETs.”

Or would it have expounded on the rationale of policies as “additional clarifications” like this? “Our admissions system ensures that no Singaporean student is deprived of a place by a foreign student. Having a small proportion of foreign students in our schools and institutions brings diversity into classrooms and helps our students develop cross-cultural competencies, a key skill in today’s world.”Likewise, many Singaporean students receive scholarships from, and study in, other countries. We are all part of an inter-connected global ecosystem. Singapore has benefited greatly from establishing such linkages and forming people to people friendships with different countries and cultures. Having some foreign students in our education system enables many more Singaporean students to enjoy similar benefits.”I doubt that such statements would have come from an independent body. Because they look like political statements.

I don’t think much of the argument that people can always appeal against a Pofma order.  Nor do I think we should be grateful that it is just a correction order, and not a take-down directive.

The question is not about what people can or cannot do, but what the G should or should not do.

I look forward to another Pofma which I can give my full-hearted support to.



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Further reading

© 2022 Bertha Henson

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