#53: Probably the last newsletter before POFMA passes

I can’t believe I’m doing this right now.

I’ve been in Chiang Mai for the past three days attending #SpliceBeta, a festival for media startups in Asia put together by the very good people of the Splice Newsroom. I was also running their festival newsroom (not that it needed much running, since all the volunteers were excellent), so of course I have to direct your attention to the stories that we published, and tell you to check out Splice’s Facebook page so you can catch up on the videos and Facebook Live interviews that the incredibly talented team worked on.

But the reason I say I can’t believe I’m doing this right now is because I gave in to peer pressure tonight and went to a jazz bar after dinner, then went to karaoke and now it’s frickin’ 3:29am and I’m writing this newsletter to make sure it gets to your inboxes at the usual time. (I thought about skipping it this week, but this is the last newsletter before Parliament passes the damn “fake news” bill, and I’ve been kpkb-ing about it for the whole month, so I feel like I should round it out.)

So forgive any typos — it’s really late (or early), and Bon Jovi is still ringing in my ears.

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The home stretch for POFMA

Wah piang. This has been such an infuriating month; the gaslighting has been through the roof.

First, lets take stock of who’s unhappy about the Protection from Online Falsehoods and Manipulation Bill (in no particular order):

  1. The big tech companies

  2. Independent media practitioners in Singapore

  3. Journalists, local and foreign, including the Financial Times and the Washington Post

  4. Legal experts like the International Commission for Jurists and Senior Counsel Harpreet Singh

  5. Regional and international NGOs like Human Rights Watch, FORUM-ASIA and CIVICUS

  6. Press freedom bodies like the Committee for the Protection of Journalists and Reporters Without Borders

  7. Publishers like Ethos Books

  8. Singaporean arts and civil society groups

  9. The UN Special Rapporteur for freedom of expression

  10. Academics

  11. Former PAP MP Inderjit Singh

  12. Nominated Members of Parliament (who have tabled amendments)

In the face of all this opposition to POFMA, the PAP government has been defending, defending, defending. Their latest narrative: that POFMA actually narrows their powers, rather than widening them.

Firstly, you cannot say your powers are being narrowed by POFMA unless POFMA is meant to repeal and replace the supposedly wider powers that you have in other laws. The PAP government hasn’t narrowed its powers at all: it still has the laws that it already has, plus it’s going to have POFMA. And Cherian George has an excellent response to this “it’s actually narrowing our powers!” argument.

Also, during the conversation around the Select Committee—and at the Select Committee’s public hearings—we’d pointed out that the PAP government already has a lot of powers and therefore doesn’t need new legislation to deal with “deliberate online falsehoods”. They did not agree. In fact, the Select Committee’s report, accepted by the government, said that existing laws were inadequate. But now that POFMA has triggered an entire month’s worth of horror and criticism from multiple fronts, the PAP government is suddenly insisting that the proposed powers in POFMA “are actually narrower than the Government’s existing powers”. And then we have this op-ed from Law Minister Shanmugam himself, which is just… y u do dis.

(To refresh your eyes, you can read this piece that links press freedom to our “bread and butter” issues.)

And so it looks like we’re on track for the PAP to push POFMA through Parliament during the next sitting on 6 May. Of course, this is a surprise to no one—all of us who spoke out against the bill have known from the very beginning that it would pass regardless of what we said. But the resistance—and the awareness-raising work—has been necessary in any case; for one thing, they can’t try spin silence as consent, because we haven’t been silent.

Moving forward, the work of monitoring POFMA and scrutinising its use will begin.

World Press Freedom Day

Yesterday was World Press Freedom Day, and the Southeast Asian Press Alliance marked it by releasing their reports on the state of press freedom and freedom of expression. It is, unfortunately, not a happy read: SEAPA says they see backsliding across the region.

I contributed the Singapore report and feature (on, surprise surprise, POFMA) this year. It was not a happy moment to have had to include myself, my friends, and New Naratif in the report. 😢

Update on our favourite recalcitrant

Activist Jolovan Wham has been sentenced to a S$5,000 fine + S$5,000 costs + disbursements for scandalising the judiciary because of a Facebook post that said that Malaysian judges are more independent than Singaporean ones when it comes to political cases. SDP politician John Tan was also handed the same fine (+ costs + disbursements) for claiming (also on Facebook) that the AGC had proven Jolovan right by taking action against him. Both men will be appealing their sentences.

Here, have an appropriate GIF for our times:


About the neighbours…

Over 300 election workers have been reported to have died following Indonesia’s massively complex single day ballot on 17 April. What happened there? It’s hard to say for sure without autopsies and investigations on every single case, but over at New Naratif we spoke to the wife of an election worker who died, as well as a former volunteer and an election official to get a better insight into the situation.