REFILE - CORRECTING DATE  Journalists wait outside St Regis Hotel in Singapore June 11, 2018. REUTERS/Tyrone Siu
FILE - Journalists are seen gatheed outside St. Regis Hotel in Singapore, June 11, 2018.

A pair of Singaporean laws designed to block false news and criticism of the courts are being used to silence and harass independent news outlets, rights groups and journalists say.

The latest government injunction, handed down April 19, targeted an independently owned news outlet for reporting the salary of Ho Ching, chief executive of state-owned investment firm Temasek Holdings and the wife of Prime Minister Lee Hsien Loong.

Calling the salary figures inaccurately reported, the government invoked a fake news law forcing editors of The Online Citizen (TOC) to issue "correction notices." Failure to comply with notices can carry fines of up to $14,000 US (20,000 Singapore dollars) or a year in jail. 

Singapore Prime Minister's wife Ho Ching is seen at the townhall during the spouses program of the G-20 summit in Hamburg, Germany , Saturday, July 8, 2017.

Passed in October, Singapore's Protection from Online Falsehoods and Manipulation Act (POFMA), which has been invoked 22 times. he POFMA office handles complaints of false news and issues orders for websites, news outlets or social media platforms to label content false. 

The act allows government ministers to issue correction notices.

The office can order the removal of any content posted by companies, organizations or individuals. Orders can be appealed and ultimately challenged in court.

The April 19 directive is the second challenge to hit TOC since last month, when Singaporean officials invoked a contempt-of-court law after the outlet quoted case affidavits in a controversial extradition trial involving a Singaporean businessman. 

The Administration of Justice Protection Act (AJPA), which carries fines up to $70,440 US (100,000 Singapore dollars) and jail terms of up to three years, has been invoked seven times since an October 2017 amendment expanded its definition of "scandalizing the judiciary" to include social media posts. 

Domestic, international concern

Amnesty International and other rights groups have condemned these laws for being excessively vague and open to abuse.

"From our perspective, there shouldn't be any restriction on freedom of speech, whether its online or offline," Francisco Bencosme, the Asia Pacific advocacy manager for Amnesty International USA, told VOA.

"As long as these laws are in the books, you don't really have a free press."

Some independent journalists say the laws could be used to silence the media at key moments.

"I'm concerned about how POFMA will be used during the election period," Kirsten Han, former editor-in-chief of New Naratif, told VOA.

Election campaigning generally takes place in a condensed time frame in Singapore. If a journalist is issued a fake news directive during this speedy election period, Han said, they may not be able to resolve it before the vote.

FILE - The Online Citizen general election iPhone app is seen on a phone in Singapore, April 26, 2011.

In a sovereign city-state where ownership of mainstream media has been largely consolidated and publishing content requires a permit from the state Communications Ministry, the space for independent journalism is narrowing.

"Audiences are still by and large tuned into the state media," said Terry Xu, editor-in-chief of TOC, one of Singapore's oldest independent news websites, and one of the only to cover government malfeasance.

"Independent media like TOC does not have the resources to upscale its operation to be a viable competitor on coverage," Xu said.

Singapore's POFMA office did not respond to VOA's email requesting comment. The Ministry of Law's corporate communications division said it would look into VOA's queries. In a May 5 email, the ministry disputed that the laws were used to harass or silence the media.

Expanded contempt-of-court restrictions

Xu and TOC reporter Danisha Hakeem were both investigated in March under Singapore's 2016 contempt-of-court law, after reporting on the trial of businessman Mohan Rajangam, who claims Singapore police unlawfully detained and extradited him to Malaysia without due process.

In a March 13 statement to TODAY Singapore, police said TOC's decision to quote affidavits violated the law, and "suggested a concerted effort by one or more person to publicly advocate for Mr. Mohan's cause, ahead of the hearing of the criminal revision."

Designed to beef up longstanding restrictions on criticizing Singapore's judicial system, the expanded contempt-of-court law, Human Rights Watch warned before its September 2016 adoption, would likely "become the next handy tool for the government to suppress critical speech in Singapore."

On the day Xu was informed he was under investigation for contempt of court, police raided his house and confiscated his computers.

"The contempt of court is undeniably a tool for the authorities to curb reportage and opinions on issues that warrant public awareness," said Xu, adding that once a person has been arrested under the act, they are effectively seen as guilty.

The only defense available is to prove "fair criticism," where the judiciary agrees there was no ulterior motive.

Beyond the contempt-of-court investigation and fake news orders, Xu is also fighting a criminal defamation case from 2018.

Fake news law

Singapore's fake news law, however, contains some built-in recourse for those facing charges.

A parliamentary Selection Committee of Deliberate Online Falsehoods was formed in 2018 to calibrate the law and take into account the context of each violation and recommend strategies to the ministries and lawmaking bodies empowered to enforce the law.

Journalists, however, said the committee neglected to acknowledge opposing views during open hearings.

"A select committee is supposed to be a committee of backbenchers who study evidence and make recommendations to the cabinet," Thum Ping Tjin, managing director of New Naratif, told VOA.

That ministers held seats on the legislative committee, he said, suggested officials weren't "really there to gather evidence but to justify a decision already taken."

"The only real limitation on the [POFMA] law is the benevolence or conscience of government ministers," Thum said.

"Essentially, a government minister can be an arbiter of truth," Han added.

In response to VOA’s request for comment, a spokesperson for the Parliament Secretariat said via email that the select committee completed its work in September 2018 and that its findings were published online.

In its May 5 email to VOA, the Ministry of Law said, “The Select Committee considered all the views put before it, but it was not bound to accept all of them.”

Increased directives

For independent news outlets with limited financial resources, multiple directives can mean bankruptcy.

Enacted October 2, POFMA was invoked five times in 2019, and 17 times since January 1, leading some to suspect the government may be keeping a closer eye on media ahead of elections.

"I don't think it's a coincidence," said Amnesty's Bencosme.

Before the pandemic, local media speculated that elections would be scheduled for the first half of the year.

"From our perspective, the timing doesn't matter," Bencosme said. "At no point should [the government] be allowed to harass media outlets, activists or lawyers."

Although the legislation makes life harder for independent journalists, Xu of TOC believes the risk is worth it.

"There does not seem to be any room to maneuver legally," said Xu. "So one will have to bear the risk of personal indictment in order to create that space."

Reporters Without Borders ranked Singapore 158 out of 180 countries in its 2020 World Press Freedom Index, in which 1 is considered the most free. 

Corrections and clarifications: This story has been updated to reflect that Terry Xu and Danisha Hakeem were investigated for contempt of court, not charged. Also, correction orders under POFMA can be challenged in court; no date is set for Singapore's elections; and a quote from Kirsten Han initially was misattributed to Thum Ping Tjin. VOA regrets the errors.