MARUAH’s Statement of Deep Concern on Actions Taken Against New Naratif’s Dr Thum Ping Tjin

12 October 2020

MARUAH expresses its concerns over the statement issued by the Elections Department (ELD) of the Singapore Prime Minister’s Office alleging that New Naratif (NN) had breached the Parliamentary Elections Act during the course of the General Elections 2020, the actions taken by the Singapore Police Force, the takedown order given by Infocomm Media Development Authority (IMDA) to Facebook, and Facebook’s censorship of New Naratif through compliance on IMDA’s takedown order.

According to the press release of 18 September, the ELD alleges that NN’s boosting of five Facebook posts during the recent General Election, “amounted to the illegal conduct of election activity under S83(2) of the Parliamentary Elections Act.” The ELD further stated that NN did not have written authority to conduct election activity, that ELD’s previous press release of 3 July on NN’s activities was carried by various news outlets and yet despite this publicity and even after Facebook took down NN’s boosted post, NN continued to boost other Facebook posts. ELD also quoted, in its statement (Ref: https://www.eld.gov.sg/press/2020/Press_Release_-_Police_reports_filed_against_New_Naratif_for_breach_of_Parliamentary_Elections_Act.pdf), the definition of election activity under the Parliamentary Elections Act, which includes “any activity which is done for the purpose of promoting or procuring the electoral success at any election for one or more identifiable political parties, candidates or groups of candidates; or prejudicing the electoral prospects of other political parties, candidates or groups of candidates at the election”.

MARUAH still remains unclear over what constitutes internet election advertisements as qualified by ELD in its press statement. We note that there are studies, codes, and in some instances, legislation that frame criteria in this regard. The onus is on ELD to state how the advertisements breached the criteria that it observes, as well as justify how these criteria are also interpreted and thus applicable to satirical content, which was the nature of one of NN’s boosted posts.

MARUAH asks if a discussion with NN to seek clarifications from NN would not have sufficed? We wonder why ELD preferred to make a police report. We also ask how many other police reports ELD has filed on other breaches as were also reported to ELD, in the course of GE 2020? Is this then the process of governance that ELD uses, that is, to make police reports? Is there a better approach as we build up trust in election climates, which inevitably will get more complex as new social media forms develop and are used more often and offer many more possibilities to users and readers? Would not a system of transparently sharing the criteria on ‘promoting’, ‘prejudicing’, ‘procuring’ help all parties to become more self-evaluative?

We are also deeply concerned over the ethical principles with which Facebook is governing its platform. Facebook has been criticised severely for allowing its communication platform to be used by political parties to influence voters. We ask if Facebook operates with greater consistency, now, on material that is deemed to be prejudicial in elections, and what its principles are. MARUAH will also be raising these concerns to Facebook. Under such circumstances, what then would be the ELD’s and IMDA’s expectations of such operators like Facebook when we do see inconsistencies in its application in leaving up or taking down news items. More importantly, how does ELD also ensure consistency in making its judgements so that IMDA can be consistent in asking Facebook to take down news items — in this case, posts from other news organisations which were boosted during the election period?

Lastly, we are troubled at the actions taken by the Singapore Police Force, in its response to the police report made on NN. Besides an interrogation for more than four hours, there was also a confiscation of personal items such as the mobile phone and laptop and entering the home of Dr Thum Ping Tjin to remove his belongings for investigations. The evidence is entirely digital and available online, and New Naratif has not denied that the boosted posts in question belonged to them. There is thus no need for the seizure of Dr Thum’s belongings. Such unnecessary seizures have happened previously to Ms Teo Soh Lung and Mr Terry Xu. We ask if investigations have to be carried out in this intimidating and intrusive manner without a thought for the individual’s civil rights.

ELD and the Ministry of Home Affairs demonstrate a high-handedness in handling the allegations. It is akin to affirming that an allegation made as a police report, leads automatically to an interrogation and seizures of materials. If the criteria are clearly spelt out, an allegation made in the form of a police report, can then be assessed on such defined terms, and where deemed fit, further action is taken. MARUAH believes that the first step is to publicise the codes that can ascertain ‘prejudicial’ content in elections. It is also equally important to situate any assessment in an environment of multimedia technology, with many media organisations delivering news and a more critical and aware public. It is important that ELD finds a balance in this governance, without crippling a journalism that offers critical perspectives and satire as an expression. It would be naïve to think of the Singapore audience as being innocently and easily influenced by the media.

MARUAH states that such continued actions including these by ELD will only instill deeper fear into people. If restrictions continue in this way, people will still be driven to take risks in expressing themselves as there is just too little legitimate space given for expression. MARUAH states that it is always preferable for a country like Singapore to host a discussion and build up better understanding through dialogue so that people’s right to express themselves is not reduced to silence. 
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Should you require clarification, please email MARUAH Secretariat at maruahsg@gmail.com

Thank you.

MARUAH Secretariat
maruahsg@gmail.com