The International Press Institute, a global network of editors, media executives and leading journalists for press freedom, today urged the Singapore Elections Department to drop a police complaint against Dr. P.J. Thum, an IPI member and managing director of New Naratif.
A police complaint against the news website was filed on September 18 by the Assistant Returning Office of the Elections Department. The complaint alleged that New Naratif had published paid advertisements during the campaign for the 2020 general elections in July, which allegedly amounted to illegal conduct of election activity. Police have confirmed that they are investigating the complaint.
The department said that the advertisement placed by the website violated the Parliamentary Elections Act, which states that such advertisements can only be placed after obtaining consent from a candidate or their agent, whereas New Naratif had not procured written permission from any candidate.
Following the complaint, police summoned Dr. Thum on September 21, and questioned him for four-and-a-half hours. During the interrogation, police officials pressured Dr. Thum to admit that New Naratif was attempting to influence the elections. The police also seized his phone and escorted him to his house where they confiscated his laptop.
“New Naratif is an independent media organization that is known for its in-depth, evidence-based coverage of news. Like other media organizations and digital media platforms, New Naratif uses social media to reach out to its readers and interested audiences”, IPI Executive Director Barbara Trionfi said in the letter. “It is a common practice for media organizations to boost their posts on Facebook and other social media platforms, especially during important events like national elections.”
Read the full letter below.
Mr Koh Siong Ling
Elections Department Singapore
Prime Minister’s office
Government of Singapore
8 October 2020
Dear Mr Koh Siong Ling,
The International Press Institute (IPI), a global network of editors, media executives and leading journalists for press freedom, is shocked at the police complaint filed by an assistant returning officer of your department against New Naratif for boosting posts on Facebook as well as at the way New Naratif’s Managing Director, Dr. Thum Ping Tjin, has been treated by police.
New Naratif is an independent media organization that is known for its in-depth, evidence-based coverage of news. Like other media organizations and digital media platforms, New Naratif uses social media to reach out to its readers and interested audiences.
It is a common practice for media organizations to boost their posts on Facebook and other social media platforms, especially during important events like national elections. During the election period, New Naratif boosted 13 posts, five of which were declared in breach of Singapore’s Parliamentary Elections Act (PEA) and a take-down order was issued by the Elections Department. Following the take-down order, Facebook removed the five posts.
As your department highlighted in a press release on 18 September, under the PEA, the conduct of any election activity requires prior written authority signed by a candidate or his election agent. “Election activity” 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.
The posts taken down by Facebook on the instructions of your department included a satirical video, a collection of articles on politics, another one on transparency and accountability in the country, one on the use of Protection from Online Falsehoods and Manipulation Act during the elections and a post on racial discrimination in Singapore. This is information of public interest, which contributes to public debate. The content of the boosted posts is therefore either informative or satirical, and in both cases cannot be categorised as political advertisement for any candidate or political party. Boosting posts on Facebook to encourage readers to read articles on New Naratif is a common practice in journalism. Criminalizing it directly undermines journalistic activities and represents a serious violation of press freedom.
Numerous other news organizations in Singapore boosted posts on Facebook to promote news content related to the elections during the election period, without receiving take-down requests by your department. We find this a highly discriminatory action against a media organization that is known for its evidence-based and critical news coverage.
The police complaint led to the questioning of New Naratif’s Managing Director and IPI member, Dr. Thum, which lasted for four-and-a-half hours. During the interrogation, police officials pressured Dr. Thum to admit that New Naratif was attempting to influence the elections. The police also seized his phone and escorted him to his house where they confiscated his laptop.
The complaint filed by your department and the police interrogation of Dr. Thum is a clear violation of press freedom.
New Naratif has been repeatedly harassed by the Singapore government in a bid to silence the critical media organization. In 2018, New Naratif was denied registration in Singapore by the Accounting and Corporate Regulatory Authority, claiming that it would be against national interests and accusing the organization of being used by foreigners to engage in political activity in Singapore. A year later, a minister questioned the motivation and funding of the media outlet. In May this year, the Minister for Law and Home Affairs ordered issuance of a Correction Direction under the Protection From Online Falsehoods and Manipulation Act against an episode of “The Show with PJ Thum”, while another such order was issued in July against an episode of New Naratif’s “Political Agenda” podcast entitled “An Interview with Dr Paul Tambyah”.
These actions amply demonstrate that New Naratif is being targeted by the government for being critical of its policies.
We therefore urge you to immediately withdraw the police complaint against New Naratif and uphold democratic principles allowing press freedom and a healthy political debate to flourish in the country.