SINGAPORE: Members of Parliament from both sides of the aisle crossed swords on Tuesday (May 7) over who is better placed to make decisions tackling deliberate online falsehoods - the Government or the courts, and if there are sufficient checks against potential abuse of powers by ministers.
Speaking during the debate on the Protection from Online Falsehoods Bill in Parliament, People’s Action Party (PAP) MP Christopher de Souza took issue with Workers’ Party (WP) MP Pritam Singh’s suggestion that the courts may be better placed than ministers in deciding whether to issue correction or take-down directions against online falsehoods.
Mr de Souza disagreed with Mr Singh, pointing out that the nature of the threat is “dynamic”, “evolves swiftly” and can “spread like fire”. “They need to be curbed and responded to robustly before they can cause harm,” he said.
These are situations in which there is no luxury of time to make decisions by going through the court process, he added.
Citing a hypothetical riot, the MP pointed out that such incidents could take place after courts are closed and there are no decision-makers to take action.
Ministers, on the other hand, are “in the mix” with access to on-the-ground information to make snap decisions, Mr de Souza said.
If rioters start shooting midway through the riot, for instance, the minister can decide on the next steps, rather than wait on court orders, he elaborated.
“I have great respect for the courts and I think as a tier of review above the minister, they are best placed to decide if the order was correct or not to begin with,” he explained. “But not to put the courts in the mix where it is such a dynamic situation.”
Picking up on the riot example cited by Mr de Souza, Mr Singh pointed out that in the Select Committee on Deliberate Online Falsehoods’ report, it was said that German police’s debunking of a falsehood regarding a rape victim contributed to street protests.
“Executive action in itself may not always be the solution that will solve the problem,” the WP secretary-general said. “I think it is important to understand that there could be other solutions that may work.”
In Parliament, Mr de Souza also questioned a proposal made by Nominated MP Irene Quay for the setting up of an independent council. Based on court documents, the proposed council appeared to want to replace ministerial decision-making and determine what constitutes a fact.
Ms Quay clarified that that was not her suggestion. Rather, the independent council is meant to function as an oversight body for review of past cases to fine-tune future Bills, she said.
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Senior Parliamentary Secretary for Home Affairs and National Development Sun Xueling also sparred with former WP chief Low Thia Khiang on Tuesday.
Earlier, the veteran opposition MP had described the Bill as one “with a hidden agenda”.
Apart from taking issue with the “ambiguous” definition of falsehoods, Mr Low said the proposed law “allows a minister to have absolute power to decide what are falsehoods and what punishments to mete out.”
“It is like during a match, the minister is both player and referee,” he added.
While the proposed law allows appeals to be made to the courts, Mr Low argued that the process is “both time-consuming and energy-sapping” for ordinary citizens.
He reiterated WP's stance on how the courts are better placed in making decisions against online falsehoods.
In her speech, Ms Sun said she disagreed with Mr Low. On the point of whether the Bill gives rise to the potential of abuse of power, she said that the minister is monitored on “three fronts” under the proposed law so as to take care of public interest.
The public makes up the first component. “If (the public) receive(s) a correction direction, that person or entity can go to the court for an appeal and challenge the ministerial decision,” she said.
This is followed by the court appeal, with the court being the “final arbiter”.
There is also the accountability to Parliament, where MPs can pose questions to any minister’s direction under the Bill. Any decision taken by the minister will also have to be publicised, she added.
Scrutiny on these three fronts will ensure that there is no abuse of power and the process will protect public interest, Ms Sun said, while referring to the Chinese character “public”.
“(The Chinese word) 'public' is made up of three (characters referring to) 'people'. In order to take care of public interest, the minister is monitored on three fronts (under this new Bill).”
Rebutting on that analogy, Mr Low reiterated that while the court procedure exists, the decision on what constitutes a falsehood and what defines public interest would already have been made by the minister. This thereby gives the minister “ultimate power”.
"Even if we have three people, it’s the minister who holds the responsibility,” he said.
Ms Sun disagreed and said she has argued that the court is “the final place for decision to be made”.