SINGAPORE: It may not always be possible for the courts to make a judgment on an alleged falsehood "in a matter of hours", said Law and Home Affairs Minister K Shanmugam in Parliament on Wednesday (May 8).
The minister was responding to Workers' Party (WP) secretary-general Pritam Singh during a debate over a recommendation by the Select Committee for Deliberate Online Falsehoods. The committee had recommended that "the Government should have the powers to swiftly disrupt the spread and influence of online falsehoods".
Mr Singh called for the courts to be the arbiters of such cases, instead of ministers. This followed WP's objections on Tuesday to the proposed Protection from Online Falsehoods and Manipulation Act (POFMA), on the grounds that the Executive should not be the initial decision maker on what constitutes false statements.
Mr Singh, who is a member of the Select Committee along with Mr Shanmugam and eight others, said: "I stand by it (the Select Committee's recommendation). But a speedy response can be foreseen, can be fathomable, through another decision maker – namely, the judiciary."
READ: New law deals specifically with online falsehoods, "preferable" over amending existing ones, says Shanmugam
Mr Singh cited enhancements to the Protection from Harassment Act (POHA) that will make it easier and faster for those affected to get remedies, such as the setting up of a specialist court with streamlined procedures to hear all POHA related matters. POFMA cases can be dealt with in a similar fashion, he said.
But Mr Shanmugam quoted a point in the same recommendation by the Select Committee, which states that the legislation "will need to achieve the objective of breaking virality by being effective in a matter of hours”.
This may not always be possible, the minister said.
“It (the case) will have to be filed. It will have to be served. The defendant may wish to come to court and say ‘I want to argue this’, which means due process. How long do you think it will take to get a duty judge?” he said.
“Over 22 years I have tried several times. It can take two days. If the duty judge is in a hearing, it can take up to end of the day.”
Mr Singh in his response cited the example of POHA, which has a requisite or prima facie standard when dealing with the courts.
"Once that standard is met, let's say by a duty judge, the question of hearing the arguments can be dealt with later.
“I think this is the point which suggests to me that there is some scope for the courts to deal with the urgent issue that the Government wants to resolve, at least in the interim, and then when it comes to the proper hearing the Government can make its case in full and the aggrieved party will have the time to respond," he said.
However, Mr Singh acknowledged a caveat in his claims, which is that "there has to be capacity for a duty judge to be available".
Separately, WP's Leon Perera asked if Singapore's courts could be expanded and have more judges or a "special class of judges" to specifically handle POFMA-related cases.
"Is it impossible, is it inconceivable that this could be done in the future in order to issue interim prima facie decisions in urgent, time-sensitive cases under POFMA?" said Mr Perera.
To this, Mr Shanmugam said: "Let's say in your scenario, we have a High Court judge who does nothing but sits there 24/7, because it (fake news) can break out anytime, and will be available as soon as the Government calls. It's technically not impossible.
"Of course, you can have a judge to do nothing but this and no other cases. (But) if he is (already) hearing a case, he can't break the case and come and listen to you. He has got to finish the case for the sitting either until lunchtime or until the evening, depending on the scenario. Duty judges hear their cases too.
"Supposing something has happened and I want to stop the communication within the next two hours. Do you think it is possible by going to court?" added the minister.
Mr Shanmugam also said that there may be instances where the judge wants to hear from both sides, which will involve more time.
During the exchange, Mr Singh also said that his decision to remove the Executive as the decision maker was reflected in the original draft of the Select Committee's report.
“The Select Committee had to put forth an approach to deal with how we were going to deal with the problem (of fake news), but as to the specific modality, I think that was something for Parliament to decide,” added the Workers’ Party chief.