SG authority to block MY-based NGO website after failure to comply with POFMA

Singapore's Ministry of Communications and Information (MCI) has directed the Infocomm Media Development Authority (IMDA) to issue access blocking orders to Malaysia-based non-profit organisation Lawyers for Liberty (LFL). The access blocking order requires internet access service providers to disable access for end-users in Singapore to the online location where the falsehood was communicated.

This comes after LFL did not comply with the correction direction under the Protection from Online Falsehoods and Manipulation Act (POFMA) recently issued against LFL's statement on its website.

Published on 16 January, the statement by LFL alleged the use of unlawful methods in judicial executions conducted in Changi Prison which the Singapore government said "contains false statements of fact". It added that LFL's allegation that the Singapore Prison Service (SPS) applies the alleged procedure for judicial executions "is completely baseless".

The correction direction issued to LFL had required the facts to be juxtaposed against the falsehoods, so that end-users in Singapore can read both versions and draw their own conclusions. LFL chose not to comply. The Access Blocking Orders will ensure that the falsehoods do not continue to be communicated in Singapore without the facts placed alongside them. "Should LFL subsequently carry the required correction notice as specified in the correction direction, the Minister will cancel the access blocking orders," MCI said in a statement.

The Singapore government said in an earlier statement on 22 January that LFL "falsely asserted that" prison officers were instructed to carry out the following brutal procedure whenever the rope breaks during a hanging, which happens from time to time.

LFL also allegedly said that the prison officer is instructed to pull the rope around the neck of the prisoner towards him. Meanwhile, another prison officer will apply pressure by pulling the body in the opposite direction. The first officer must then kick the back of the neck of the prisoner with great force in order to break it. The officers are told to kick the back of the neck because that would be consistent with death by hanging, LFL said. The officers are told not to kick more than two times, so that there will be no tell-tale marks in case there is an autopsy. Strict orders are also given not to divulge the above to other prison staff not involved in executions, LFL alleged.

The Singapore Prison Service, according to the Singapore government, does not apply the procedure as alleged by LFL for judicial executions. "No effort is spared to ensure that all judicial executions in Singapore are carried out in strict compliance with the law. All judicial executions are conducted in the presence of the Superintendent of the Prison and a medical doctor, among others," it added.

In response to the Singapore government's denial of its statement, LFL said it "absolutely stand by" its statement that "prisoners on death row in Changi prison are executed brutally and unlawfully by kicks to the neck whenever the rope breaks". "Our statement is based upon evidence from former and current Singapore prison officers. These are officers with impeccable service records," it said.

LFL also "further [demanded]" that the correction notice be "unconditionally withdrawn" with immediate effect by the Singapore government. Meanwhile, LFL also said since the announcement by MCI to block its website, the site has experienced a surge in traffic coming mainly from Singapore. "This shows that banning websites or information is always counter-productive. The Singapore government should instead have responded with facts and rational arguments," it added.

POFMA was passed in May last year and under the law, those who spread or accelerate online falsehoods could face jail terms of up to 10 years and fines of up to SG$1 million. The law also clamps down on the use of an inauthentic online account or a bot to communicate falsehoods. Additionally, internet platforms or individuals refusing to display corrections alongside malicious posts or remove them may also face hefty fines and jail terms.

Recently, Singapore Press Holdings (SPH) complied with the bill by carrying out a correction notice regarding one of its post on its online forum, HardwareZone. A general correction direction was issued to SPH after a false statement claiming that a man has died from the Wuhan coronavirus infection in Singapore was posted on HardwareZone.com. SPH was then told to carry the correction notice to all end-users in Singapore who uses the online forum.

This is not the first time that POFMA was invoked. Last year, Prime Minister Lee Hsien Loong requested local independent news outlet The Online Citizen (TOC) to take down and apologise for an article and Facebook post for “several false allegations” around the 38 Oxley Road residences. The letter by PM Lee’s press secretary, Chang Li Lin sent to Terry Xu, chief editor of TOC said similar to the “false allegations” made previously by his sister Dr. Lee Wei Ling, the article on the site allege that PM Lee misled his father  into thinking that the 38 Oxley Road property had been “gazetted by the Singapore government”.