Government to make initial decisions on falsehoods, courts are the 'final arbiters': Shanmugam

Government to make initial decisions on falsehoods, courts are the 'final arbiters': Shanmugam

The Government will not decide on "what is true and not true" and the decision will be left to the courts, Law and Home Affairs Minister K Shanmugam said on Tuesday (Apr 2). Ariel Lim reports.

SINGAPORE: The Government will not decide on what is true and not true and the final decision will be left to the courts, Law and Home Affairs Minister K Shanmugam said on Tuesday (Apr 2). 

The minister was speaking in response to queries about the Protection from Online Falsehoods and Manipulation Bill, which was tabled in Parliament on Monday.

READ: Singapore proposes multi-pronged law to combat online falsehoods

The Bill sets out the tools available when falsehoods surface, such as issuing correction directions or, in more serious cases, take-down orders. Questions have been raised about the amount of power the Government would have in deciding what is true or false.

"[The] court decides ultimately what is true and what is false and they will be the final arbiters. That is how issues ought to be decided," he told reporters on Tuesday.

"So it is completely not true to say: ‘Oh, all sorts of opinions will be caught or free speech will be affected or I cannot express viewpoints’, nor is it true to say that Government is going to decide what I can say and what I cannot say."

If a person puts out an allegation, which the Government finds to be untrue, it can intervene to ask for a correction or for it to be taken down, Mr Shanmugam explained.

If the person who had initially stated the allegation stands by their statement, it can be dealt with in court.

READ: FAQ: How will the new law stop deliberate online falsehoods from spreading?

He noted that the Government would make the first decision in deciding if a statement is a falsehood or fact. This is necessary as falsehoods can "travel very far" within a few hours, which could lead to "massive consequences".

He cited a case in Myanmar where a false claim that a Buddhist woman had been raped by two Muslims resulted in armed mobs, deaths and injuries within 24 hours. 

Another important aspect of the Bill, according to Mr Shanmugam, is what it does not cover. 

"It doesn’t cover criticisms, it doesn’t cover opinions, it doesn’t cover viewpoints," he said.

"If you were to say, ‘Government standards are slipping; our Government’s to be blamed for rising inequality; our Government is not giving back my CPF (Central Provident Fund); or Singapore’s policies are elitist; or cost of living is rising; or HDB (Housing and Development Board) prices are too high; or our COE (Certificate of Entitlement) prices are too high; or the ban of events is arbitrary; or human rights in Singapore is being curtailed; or we can’t hold protests in Singapore’, all those are opinions and it doesn’t get caught by this Bill."

It is incorrect to say that opinions will be caught under the new laws or that free speech will be affected, the minister added, saying that it is also untrue that Singaporeans cannot express their views on issues once the new laws are in place.

READ: Regulating online falsehoods is ‘new area’ for Singapore Government, says S Iswaran

Mr Shanmugam also addressed concerns from tech companies, including social media giant Facebook, about the Bill. 

"I think consultations with them have been going on for close to two years and I think it is very heartening to see someone like Facebook CEO Mr Zuckerberg himself coming out and say, 'this is too big for the tech platforms to handle by themselves', the harmful content and other things.

"And really, governments need to come in. And, you know, we will continue to consult with them," he added.

Source: CNA/aa(mi)

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