Recent applications of POFMA related to Covid-19

By Neal Kok


https://www.channelnewsasia.com/singapore/pofma-covid-19-cheah-kit-sun-goh-meng-seng-2345141



Since the outbreak of Covid-19, one need not think hard to recall a list of controversial claims being made regarding the virus, ranging from the effect of masks, the origin of the first variant, the origin of subsequent variants, [1] and the effectiveness of different treatments, most notably that of the vaccines released. Among some of these claims, a handful have been identified by the government as false statements, in violation of section 7 of the Protection from Online Falsehoods and Manipulation Act 2019.


Section 7 provides that it is an offence for a person to communicate in Singapore a statement knowing or having reason to believe that it is a false statement of fact, and the communication of the statement in Singapore is likely to have one of 6 listed consequences. Of relevance to claims surrounding Covid-19, is the second consequence that it “be prejudicial to public health, public safety, public tranquillity or public finances.” Understandably, the Government is concerned that false information communicated to Singaporeans will result in widespread fears, which in turn could result in irrational or extreme reactions that are unnecessary given the actual circumstances of the situation. To counter this, the Minister may instruct the Competent Authority to issue a Correction Direction to a person who communicated the false statement of fact in Singapore, if the Minister believes that it is in the public interest to issue the direction. [2]


The application of this has been observed in a recent case involving opposition politician Goh Meng Seng and author Cheah Kit Sun. [3] In a blog post titled ‘Do Not Participate in a Society that Rejects You’ written by Mr Cheah and shared on Facebook by Mr Goh, the Ministry of Health claimed that the post “falsely” exaggerated the dangers of the Covid-19 vaccines and discouraged people from taking them. Given the recent vaccine booster exercise, the Ministry of Health said that it was of especial importance to correct these falsehoods. In response to the claims made in the article, the ministry gave evidence contrary to the statement in the blog post that the Covid-19 vaccines “are the most dangerous ever developed in recent memory”, with reported adverse events and deaths from the vaccine “higher than all vaccines combined in the past 10 years.” [4] Such evidence included that the Covid-19 vaccines approved in Singapore have been assessed to be safe and effective internationally by reputable health and scientific agencies and the Health Sciences Authority, and that the incidence rate reported by healthcare professionals was 0.006% of total doses administered. Evidence and an explanation were also given that there was no support for the claim that Covid-19 vaccines have caused a substantially higher rate of serious injury and death than other vaccines. [5]


This case is a good illustration of how the Protection from Online Falsehoods and Manipulation Act 2019 may be used by government ministries to curb the spread of misleading information that could misinform Singaporeans’ decision-making. This is particularly critical when the risks associated with such a decision concerning taking the vaccine may constitute serious health consequences.





References:

[1] Gov.sg, ‘Corrections and clarifications regarding falsehoods published by States Times Review on COVID-19 situation’, 14 February 2020, <https://www.gov.sg/article/factually-clarifications-on-falsehoods-posted-by-str-on-covid-19-situation>, accessed 09 January 2022

[2] Protection from Online Falsehoods and Manipulation Act 2019, ss.10-11

[3] Afifah Darke, CNA, ‘POFMA correction directions issued to Cheah Kit Sun, Goh Meng Seng over COVID-19 vaccine falsehoods’, < https://www.channelnewsasia.com/singapore/pofma-covid-19-cheah-kit-sun-goh-meng-seng-2345141>, accessed 09 January 2022

[4] Cheah Kit Sun, ‘Do Not Participate In A Society that Rejects You’, 20 October 2021, < https://www.benjamincheah.com/2021/10/20/do-not-participate-in-a-society-that-rejects-you/>, accessed 09 January 2022

[5] Gov.sg, ‘Corrections and Clarifications regarding content about COVID-19 Vaccines in a blog post by Cheah Kit Sun’, 29 November 2021, < https://www.gov.sg/article/factually291121>, accessed 09 January 2022