The Singapore government has used the non-human rights compliant Protection from Online Falsehoods and Manipulation Act 2019 (POFMA) to arbitrarily restrict the right to freedom of expression and information online, the ICJ said in a new legal briefing published today.
The ICJ has previously highlighted how POFMA on its face is not compliant with international law and standards protecting the right to freedom of opinion, expression and information.
The legal briefing, Dictating the Internet: A Human Rights Assessment of the Implementation of Singapore’s Protection from Online Falsehoods and Manipulation Act 2019, underscores how POFMA has been used in violation of international human rights law in the two years since it entered into force.
The briefing highlights emblematic instances where POFMA has been used in contravention of the principles of legitimate purpose, legality, necessity and proportionality under international human rights law. The briefing further emphasizes how POFMA has been applied without sufficient judicial oversight.
“The calibrated measures contemplated under POFMA fail to address the potential harms posed by the spread of false information online in a manner that also ensures the right to freedom of expression can be exercised with the least impediments needed for only a strictly necessary purpose,” said Daron Tan, ICJ Legal Consultant.
The ICJ reiterates its call for POFMA to be repealed. Alternatively, the law must be substantially amended to, inter alia:
- Include in the law the duty of the authorities to treat restrictions issued under POFMA as prima facie restrictions on the right to freedom of expression, which should be undertaken only after a full analysis that effectively applies international standards of legitimate purpose, legality, necessity and proportionality and non-discrimination;
- Ensure that any restriction issued under POFMA is authorized pursuant to an order by an independent and impartial judicial authority at first instance;
- Require that restrictions issued under POFMA are clearly, transparently and regularly publicized;
- Amend the definition of “public interest” to ensure that any limitations on freedom of expression are necessary for the respect of the rights and reputations of others, or for the protection of national security, public order, public health or morals;
- Remove the use of criminal sanctions in relation to restrictions issued under POFMA, except for very exceptional and most egregious circumstances of incitement to violence;
- Amend section 17 such that the first recourse for a POFMA restriction is an appeal to an independent and impartial judicial authority; and
- Reduce the procedural hurdles that may hinder the meaningful access to the right to appeal.
The legal briefing will be launched at a virtual event, co-organized with Access Now. The launch includes a panel discussion, that will draw together human rights defenders, diplomats, journalists, lawyers and civil society to discuss the key findings and recommendations of the legal briefing.
The panellists will also situate POFMA within the wider Singaporean context, including in relation to the recently released Foreign Interference (Countermeasures) Bill (FICA Bill), which will further threaten the right to freedom of expression and information online.
The discussion will include as panelists:
- Daron Tan, Legal Consultant, International Commission of Jurists;
- Raman Jit Singh Chima, Asia Policy Director and Senior International Counsel, Access Now;
- Kirsten Han, Independent Journalist, We, The Citizens; and
- Lee Yi Ting, Communications Officer, The Digital Defenders Partnership.
The legal briefing is available here. (PDF)
Daron Tan, ICJ Legal Consultant, e: daron.tan(a)icj.org
ICJ, ‘Singapore must expand civic space and end undue restrictions on fundamental freedoms’, 30 September 2021
ICJ, ‘Southeast Asia: ICJ launches report on increasing restrictions on online speech’, 11 December 2019
ICJ, ‘Singapore: ICJ calls on government not to adopt online regulation bill in current form’, 12 April 2019