WP, Law Ministry spar over harassment law

WP, Law Ministry spar over harassment law
Photo: Ministry of Law
Published: 4:00 AM, January 23, 2017
Updated: 11:27 AM, January 23, 2017

SINGAPORE — The Workers’ Party (WP) cautioned yesterday against amending the Protection from Harassment Act (Poha) to allow the Government to invoke a provision to deal with falsehoods, saying it would “vigorously oppose” any such move.

In response, the Law Ministry said last night that the WP had misrepresented the issues and the Government’s aims as being about seeking protection from harassment.

The Poha provides remedies for two types of wrongs — harassment and false statements — and the issue in hand is about false information, or “fake news”, the ministry said.

Last week, the Court of Appeal ruled in a 2-1 split decision that government agencies do not fall under the legal definition of “persons” under Section 15 of the Poha.

The section allows a victim of a false statement to seek relief by asking the court to order that the statement not be published unless it drew attention to the truth.

The WP said it was concerned about the Law Ministry’s initial response to the ruling: That the policy intent was to allow natural persons, as well as the Government and corporations, to rely on Section 15 and that the Government will consider what further steps it should take to correct the deliberate spread of falsehoods.

In its statement, the WP said the Act should not be turned into “the latest in the many tools that the Government can use against Singaporeans who publicly express different views from the Government on its policies and actions”.

But the Law Ministry reiterated yesterday that “everyone, including the Government, should be entitled to point out falsehoods which are published, and have the true facts brought to public attention”.

“The Government strongly believes that the scourge of false information must not be allowed to take hold in Singapore, lest it weakens our democratic society and institutions,” stated the ministry.

“At a time when false information can affect election results, contaminate public discussions and weaken democratic societies, it is important for the Government, as well as corporations and individuals, to be able to respond robustly to false statements that could poison public debate and mislead decision-making.”

The case the apex court ruled on had concerned doctor-inventor Ting Choon Meng’s comments, published by socio-political website The Online Citizen (TOC), about alleged patent infringement involving the Ministry of Defence (Mindef).

TOC later published Mindef’s statement refuting his claims, but the Attorney-General sought a court order to amend the story and for the allegations not to be published without a notification about their falsehood and the truth provided by Mindef.

The appellate court agreed with Dr Ting and The Online Citizen that the Poha was not meant to cover such cases involving the Government.

While the WP welcomed this decision, the Law Ministry said yesterday that if the party were a champion of transparency, “it should welcome the ability of the Government and others to put a stop to falsehoods”.

“There can be no objection to this unless the WP sees profit in the dissemination of falsehoods,” the ministry added.