The powers that a law like POFMA grants the authorities are extensive. In a context where people are already struggling for their civil and political rights, and where a powerful elite can assert dominance over other spaces of public thought and discourse, the impact on freedom of expression and a citizen’s ability to openly engage in democratic practices without fear should not be underestimated.


Even before any bill was presented in Parliament, members of Singapore’s civil society had warned against efforts to tackle “fake news” that would hand over more power to the state without adequate checks and balances. But when we first saw the text of the Protection from Online Falsehoods and Manipulation Act (POFMA) — a piece of legislation that Nigeria is now interested in adopting a version of — our fears were crystallised by the breadth of the powers that would be granted to the government.

Under Singapore’s POFMA, any government minister is allowed to order an individual, organisation, or platform to append government-issued “correction notices” to online posts, or to demand that they remove or block access to such content. These executive orders are considered in effect unless the High Court overturns them, but one can only appeal to the High Court after one has already applied to, and been rejected by, the minister who issued the order. Unless one wins in the High Court at the very end of the process, the order is deemed to be in effect, and a failure to comply to it could attract fines or jail time.

The government is given enormous latitude to determine what “fake news” is. The only criterion that needs to be met for a minister to issue an order is for the content — or aspects of the content — to be considered “false or misleading”, and for the minister to be of the opinion that it’s in the “public interest” to act —a category that extends from national security concerns to the maintenance of public order, to the protection of public confidence in government institutions.

These powers also exist under Nigeria’s proposed Protection from Internet Falsehoods and Manipulation and Other Related Matters Bill, except that it’ll be the Nigerian police force who can exercise them.

When it comes to introducing legislation, questions about proportionality, due process, and checks and balances are important — and Singapore’s POFMA lacks all these things, which means that Nigerians should be extremely cautious about what exactly it is that is being copied over.


That something needs to be done to address harmful misinformation and disinformation circulating freely online, particularly on social media platforms, is not in dispute. It’s already been established that such falsehoods or twisted narratives can have deadly impact, to the point of fuelling Islamophobia and genocide in Myanmar.

But it’s not enough to just agree that we need to address and combat misinformation and disinformation online. How we approach the problem and the measures we take are important too. And the fight against “fake news” can be appropriated and weaponised, used as an excuse by the state to justify further extensions of its power.

When it comes to introducing legislation, questions about proportionality, due process, and checks and balances are important — and Singapore’s POFMA lacks all these things, which means that Nigerians should be extremely cautious about what exactly it is that is being copied over.

POFMA was passed in Singapore’s Parliament in May 2019, about a month after it was introduced for its first reading. It came into effect in early October. Since then, its powers have been invoked five times by various government ministers, against four pieces of online content.

What this essentially means is that the door is open for Singapore’s PAP, or Nigeria’s police force, to target content that’s inconvenient to them; yet, if there ever were any falsehoods or skewed claims coming from these parties, others do not have the same access to the protection that this piece of legislation grants.


Every piece of content, mostly circulated on Facebook, was critical of the ruling People’s Action Party (PAP) and its policies. But it wasn’t clear that any of them contained any real risk of incitement to hatred or harm — the sort of serious impact that was seen in Sri Lanka or Myanmar. Instead, the correction directions issued — in which recipients were forced to link to government statements — responded to what the PAP government claimed had been implied (triggering debates among observers about how distinctions between statements of fact and opinion are being made), or quarrelled with the interpretation of data and framing of arguments. The government also made unilateral declarations of intention; in its response to the opposition Singapore Democratic Party, the PAP government said that the party had made false statements with “a singular objective” to “stoke fear and anxiety” among local professionals. This was not a finding of any court trial, but a claim put on record simply because the PAP government said so.

This doesn’t work in reverse; because of the way the law is drafted, it can only be exercised by government ministers (in the Singaporean case) or the police force (in the Nigerian case). No one else can invoke the law to demand a correction or removal of falsehoods.

What this essentially means is that the door is open for Singapore’s PAP, or Nigeria’s police force, to target content that’s inconvenient to them; yet, if there ever were any falsehoods or skewed claims coming from these parties, others do not have the same access to the protection that this piece of legislation grants. It’s not hard to recognise what a problematic state of affairs this is, and how vulnerable it is to abuse.

The powers that a law like POFMA grants the authorities are extensive. In a context where people are already struggling for their civil and political rights, and where a powerful elite can assert dominance over other spaces of public thought and discourse, the impact on freedom of expression and a citizen’s ability to openly engage in democratic practices without fear should not be underestimated.

Kirsten Han is a Singaporean independent journalist and Editor-in-Chief of New Naratif, a platform for Southeast Asian journalism, research, art, and community-building.