SINGAPORE: The Workers' Party (WP) objects to the proposed law to tackle deliberate online falsehoods, on grounds that the Executive should not be the initial decision maker on what constitutes false statements, said party secretary-general Pritam Singh on Tuesday (May 7).
Speaking in Parliament during the debate on the Bill, Mr Singh said the proposed law gives "remarkable leeway" to the Executive to define what a falsehood is.
He cited a clause in the Bill which legislates that a statement can be deemed by the Government to be false if it is misleading – wholly, in part, on its own or in the context which it appears.
"In public understanding, this clause gives broad latitude to the Executive to clamp down on what it deems to be even misleading statements which may not be false per se," Mr Singh said.
Statements which the Executive finds offending, misleading or against public interest may be not be seen as so by others, he added.
Under the proposed legislation, a minister has the power to declare that an article contains falsehoods, and issue a direction for a correction to be carried or for the falsehood to be taken down. This direction can be challenged in court.
COURTS AS DECISION MAKER
Mr Singh agreed that the issue of deliberate online falsehoods is one that Singapore has to deal with, but he said that it should not be up to ministers, or the Executive, to determine what is an actionable falsehood.
"While the Government must legitimately be able to apply to shut down malicious actors, a court order should legitimise the action that needs to be undertaken," he told the House.
READ: Law Minister K Shanmugam addresses concerns over proposed online falsehoods and manipulation law
Mr Singh pointed out that the Select Committee on Deliberate Online Falsehoods, which convened last year, saw some representatives expressing concerns about having the Executive as the decision maker.
“Representors raised concerns about whether Executive action would be credible. There was concern that Executive action could feed fears over the abuse of power. It was also pointed out that Executive directions would not be able to deal with falsehoods spread by the Executive," Mr Singh said, quoting from the report of the Select Committee.
He added that the committee had provided three alternatives to the Executive - namely the courts, an independent body or ombudsman, and to have social media companies self-regulate when notified of falsehoods.
Mr Singh said that the Government's selection of the Executive as the decision maker could be because false statements of fact can be corrected, removed and dealt with faster than the courts.
"If so, it would be important to put this factor into perspective and consider alternatives that seek to balance the urgency of moving against an online falsehood and having a decision maker that is more acceptable than an unchecked Executive," he said.
WP CHIEF PROPOSES DUTY JUDGES TO DEAL WITH URGENT CASES
The WP chief added there are quick remedies under civil law or enhancements to the Protection from Harassment Act which could be tapped to deal with online falsehoods and manipulation quickly and effectively.
"To this end, I believe there is scope to introduce processes involving duty judges to deal with an urgent application from the Government speedily or at very short notice," Mr Singh said.
This could also be applied to periods where there is a heightened risk of false or misleading postings online, such as during the elections, he added.
READ: Measures targeting online falsehoods aim to ‘remedy’ impact, ‘not punish wrongdoers’: Edwin Tong
Mr Singh noted that the fake news domain is already a controversial one, so the decision maker must be perceived to be free of conflict.
"On its part, the Executive will act in some cases of falsehoods, and it other cases, it will not. In both scenarios, questions will be asked why the Executive acted as such. Suspicious will be raised and perceptions formed. Politicisation would be inevitable," he said.
"But it is precisely because of these very reasons that the decision maker must be perceived to be free of conflict in deciding on matters concerning online falsehoods and manipulation as defined by the Bill."
A BILL WITH A "HIDDEN AGENDA"
Workers' Party Member of Parliament (MP) for Aljunied GRC Low Thia Khiang also spoke against the proposed law, saying that the Bill comes with a "hidden agenda".
"This is a Bill with a hidden agenda. The Workers' Party opposes this Bill," said Mr Low, who spoke in Mandarin.
"The Bill allows a minister to have absolute power to decide what are falsehoods and what punishments to mete out," he said. "It’s like during a match, the minister is both player and referee."
Added the MP: "Prime Minister Lee pointed out recently that the prevalence of technology and social media have made it very easy for hate speech and falsehoods to spread. People with malicious intent can easily manipulate opinions and influence elections.
"This is seemingly convincing. But how can we be sure that the ministers from the ruling party will not manipulate opinions and spread falsehoods in order to win elections?"
The definition of falsehoods in the Bill is too wide and ambiguous, said Mr Low.
The Bill "stipulates that the Government has power to deal with misleading remarks, but what is the dividing line between misleading and false statements?" he asked.
He gave two examples to illustrate his concerns about this.
"For example, if I say the Pioneer and Merdeka Generation packages are to buy votes, is this opinion or information?" asked Mr Low. "I think because of the wide definition of falsehoods in the Bill, the minister can make a decision on whether it is information or opinion according to need."
"Similarly, the same words coming from different people may be interpreted differently by the minister."
He used the statement "the older generation cannot accept a non-Chinese prime minister" as another example.
"If this were to have come from the minister himself, or a supporter, the minister may say that this is a personal opinion," said Mr Low. "However if these words come from the minister's political opponents, on social media, the minister may also say that spreading such falsehoods will create racial conflicts, endangering national security."
ACTIONS MORE LIKE A "DICTATORIAL GOVERNMENT"
If passed, the proposed law would lead to people trying to protect themselves by self-censorship, said Mr Low.
Although the Bill allows people to appeal to the court, this is time-consuming and energy-sapping for an ordinary citizen, said the MP.
"In a situation where possession of resources is unequal, to be engaged in a legal tussle with the Government is like hitting a stone with an egg," he said.
"To introduce such a Bill is not what the Government, which claims to defend democracy and public interest, should do," he said. "It is more like the actions of a dictatorial government that will resort to any means to hold on to absolute power."