SINGAPORE: The new law to tackle deliberate online falsehoods in Singapore is not meant to create a “chilling effect” in public conversations, said Senior Minister of State for Law Edwin Tong on Wednesday (Apr 3).
Mr Tong, who was part of a panel discussion on fact, falsehoods and free speech, was asked if the Protection from Online Falsehoods and Manipulation Bill may cause people to err on the side of caution during conversation as they may not know if what they are saying can be considered a statement of fact that may be false or misleading.
He reiterated that the new proposed law only deals with statements of fact and will not affect those who are offering personal comments or viewpoints.
The issue of possible curbing of free speech was something Law Minister K Shanmugam had addressed on Monday when he said that people putting falsehoods into the marketplace to confuse others and to change the terms of debate undermines free speech and democracy.
As such, the approach for a correction-based response to these falsehoods encourages free speech. “There are more viewpoints for you to have, rather than be restricted in what is said to be just false. So, I don't see how it affects free speech,” said Mr Shanmugam.
The law also does not state how many people must have seen the false statement of fact for it to apply.
When asked about the size and scope of the online audience in which the proposed law applies, Mr Tong said it applies as long as someone issues a false statement of fact and undermines public interest, even if it is in a closed group of 10 on a platform like WhatsApp.
It might be more difficult to issue a correction direction for such platforms, but a general correction on other platforms on that particular falsehood may be considered, he added.
“I don’t agree there’s a chilling effect,” Mr Tong said.
“(But) I do agree there must be more effort to draw the distinction between what’s a fact and a comment or opinion among the public when the law comes into effect,” he added later.
The Senior Minister of State also addressed the issue of prohibitive legal costs if someone wants to contest in court that his or her statement of fact, deemed untrue by a minister, is actually the truth.
Mr Tong said there are already systems in place for legal assistance to be administered for people who need it, adding that the person who wrote the statement in question would probably have some material on hand that can help explain in court why they wrote it.
“We’re not looking at a complicated two-week trial here,” he said.
The panel, moderated by Singapore Management University (SMU) law professor Eugene Tan, also included Singapore University of Technology and Design’s Professor Lim Sun Sun and SMU's Assistant Professor Michael Genkin.
SMU law dean Associate Professor Goh Yihan said in his closing statements that he was surprised by the amount of misunderstanding on the Bill.
For instance, there have been criticisms about how ministers are the final arbiters of truth, which Assoc Prof Goh said is untrue if one had read the Bill. It is the courts who are the final arbiters, and such falsehoods "distorts the debate" about the law, he said.
"This is not an unfamiliar arrangement, where the executive (branch) has power to make a swift decision, and then the decision can be challenged in court," he said.
"This is the right balance - swiftly address harm and then allow challenge in court," he added.