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Do POFMA's correction notices curb free speech?

A supplement to Issue 84 of the weekly newsletter

Kirsten Han
Kirsten Han
4 min read
Do POFMA's correction notices curb free speech?

As mentioned in this week’s issue of the newsletter, I’d like to address the argument, made by both the PAP government and some observers, that correction notices don’t curb freedom of expression.

At first glance, this might make sense. After all, asking that someone put a notice on their post with a link to the government’s version of events doesn’t seem as aggressive as demanding that the post be removed completely. But does that really mean that there’s no impact on freedom of expression?

First, we have to remember that the power of the correction notice doesn’t just end with the notice. Under the law, an online location that has received at least three POFMA orders can be made into a “declared online location”.

Those who run declared online locations aren’t allowed to derive material benefit from operating them, and others are also prohibited from providing financial support.

This would effectively de-fund these declared online locations, which means you might as well be shutting them down. Three correction orders in a six-month period can lead to this. So I don’t think a correction order is just a correction order.

There’s also the framing and wording of it as a “correction order”. This is what the correction notice that Brad Bowyer was told to add to this post looks like:

The way it’s worded, it’s not about presenting two sides or multiple points of view. The government’s saying that the post contains falsehoods, and that people should look to the government link for the “correct facts”. “This post contains false statements of fact” doesn’t sound like they’re saying that someone might have been mistaken. It sounds like they’re saying that the person is a liar.

What would the impact be on public perception if, as time wears on, vocal individuals online are continually implied to be lying, while the government is continually presented as the one with the correct facts? (Remember: POFMA is one-way since only government ministers get to exercise its powers, so the likelihood of a ruling party post ever having to add a notice saying that it contains “false statements of fact” with a link to some other source is pretty much nil.)

In most cases, it’d have to come down to how justified the corrections were—like with the Bowyer case, we’d need people to look at the corrections and clarifications made, and analyse whether it made sense for a POFMA order to be issued. We’d need to be able to truly question—and not just refer to their press releases—the ones in power about why they chose to use POFMA rather than other methods. (I don’t think the High Court would be enough here, since it’d be entirely dependent on the individual targeted by the order to bring the challenge, and I wouldn’t be surprised if many won’t bother going all the way.)

I think it’d be unrealistic to expect the average Singaporean to follow up and scrutinise every POFMA direction. I’m also not confident that the mainstream media will be able to provide incisive examinations of each POFMA order, or take the lead on coverage and demands for accountability if the law is overused or misused.

What this means is that there’s little capacity in Singapore for POFMA to be meaningfully resisted, whether in practice, or through public perception. Without the deeper context of whether a POFMA direction was fair or not, all that’s going to be built up in public perception is that those who subject to such directions have done something wrong or have told lies or are untrustworthy. People won’t know if you’re really a liar, but over time what will come to mind is that the government says you publish falsehoods. It’s a subtle way of tarnishing someone’s credibility and reputation.

In a context where opposition politicians, activists, and other more critical voices have to constantly think about not only how to avoid falling foul of overly broad laws, but also how to hold on to the moral high ground in the event of trolling and insinuations made in the mainstream press, no one wants to be forced to publish something on their own posts that claims they’ve published “false statements of fact”. That would just be opening the door to further smears.

But with access to information often restricted, there are things that might need to be said, but can’t always be fully verified—which means that there’s a risk to publishing them. With POFMA hanging over everyone’s heads, how many people will choose to self-censor and sit tight instead of taking that risk?

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