Since the enactment of the Protection from Online Falsehoods and Manipulation Act (POFMA), there have been heated discussions about the potential inconsistency and selective enforcement in the application of the law, particularly targeting entities and individuals, often activists and political figures.
This questionable trend of selective application is further accentuated by the handling of correction directives issued to various news outlets, including Gutzy Asia, The Online Citizen Asia, and Singapore Eye, over articles they published.
In October, these three platforms were directed by the Minister of Manpower to post correction notices concerning their coverage of an incident involving a woman’s tragic death in Yishun. The contentious point was their claim that the deceased was a Filipino maid or worker, a statement the government later corrected, identifying the individual as a Singaporean. Compliance with the directives was mandatory, with specific guidelines outlining how the correction should be positioned and hyperlinked on their websites.
However, the execution of these directives exposed what appears to be a disparity in enforcement. While Gutzy Asia adhered to the instructions, Singapore Eye’s compliance was less straightforward. Notably, as of 17 October, Singapore Eye had not posted a notice on its Facebook page until Gutzy raised awareness of the issue by writing to POFMA. Following the email, Singapore Eye took action.
Nevertheless, Singapore Eye still had not published a notice as required by the POFMA office as of 19 October. It was only after Gutzy wrote to the POFMA office that Singapore Eye pushed the article to the top by editing the date of the post to make it more recent.
Despite these measures, the steps taken did not meet the requirements as outlined in the POFMA direction issued on 16 October, such as having the notice link to the Factually article meant for the POFMA direction.
The direction issued by the Minister of Manpower to Gutzy stated:
“In addition, the following correction notice must be posted such that it appears at the top of the main page of the website at https://www.gutzy.asia, by no later than 16 October 2023, 2200hrs (GMT+8). The correction notice shall be easily perceived and shall be of a font size that is no smaller than the largest font size on the main page. The correction notice must appear as text (inclusive of a clickable hyperlink) and shall remain at the top of the main page until 13 November 2023, 2359hrs (GMT+8).”
Although Singapore Eye’s website remains unchanged, no penalties or statements have been issued by the POFMA office in response to the publication’s non-compliance.
This situation becomes even more glaring against the backdrop of the Asia Sentinel case. The online platform had similarly been scrutinized under POFMA, receiving directives to post correction notices. However, their response failed to meet the stipulated requirements, leading to the site being blocked for Singapore readers—within days by the POFMA office to enforce compliance.
According to the Ministry of Information and Communication on the blockage of Asia Sentienl: “The correction direction issued to Asia Sentinel required the facts to be juxtaposed against the falsehoods so that end users in Singapore can read both versions and draw their own conclusions.”
On top of the blockage, Section 15 of POFMA is unambiguous in its stance: compliance is not negotiable. According to this provision, any individual or entity that receives and subsequently ignores a Part 3 Direction is committing an offence. The repercussions are not to be taken lightly. For individuals, the law stipulates a fine not exceeding S$20,000 or imprisonment for a term not exceeding 12 months, or possibly both. Entities, on the other hand, face even steeper penalties, with fines reaching up to S$500,000.
The different reactions to non-compliance raise significant questions. Why was the response to Singapore Eye’s apparent breach less severe compared to that of Asia Sentinel? This inconsistent application of penalties or enforcement can undermine the act’s credibility, fueling suspicions of bias or selective targeting.
Moreover, the issue extends beyond mere compliance. It’s noteworthy that content similar to what prompted their POFMA direction surfaced on other sites, often attracting significantly higher viewership.
These instances, however, seemingly went unnoticed or were disregarded. For instance, shicheng.news reproduced Singapore Eye’s article that fell afoul of POFMA, drawing a staggering 100,000-plus views, yet it received no directive from POFMA.
This discrepancy was reported to the POFMA office, which, concerning, has not responded to the matter.
This selective approach to seemingly similar violations adds another layer of complexity and doubt regarding the criteria used for invoking POFMA.
The essence of legislation like POFMA is to curb the spread of online falsehoods that could harm the public interest. For such laws to be effective and maintain public trust, their application must be consistent, transparent, and impartial. The perception of double standards or targeting specific outlets based on undisclosed criteria could significantly erode confidence in the mechanisms meant to safeguard information integrity.
In this light, authorities must address these concerns head-on. This involves providing clear, public-facing criteria for when and how POFMA directives are applied, ensuring consistent enforcement, and being transparent about the reasoning behind specific actions. Without this clarity, the noble goal of preventing misinformation’s societal damage risks being overshadowed by accusations of bias and undermining the rule of law.