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Laws to curb fake news: Govt not the ‘final decider’ of what is false or true, says Shanmugam

SINGAPORE — As questions are raised about the power given to government ministers to determine falsehoods under newly proposed laws to tackle fake news, Law and Home Affairs Ministers K Shanmugam stressed that the Government is not the “final decider of what is true and not true”.

Laws to curb fake news: Govt not the ‘final decider’ of what is false or true, says Shanmugam

Law and Home Affairs Minister K Shamugam said that there have been misconceptions about the proposed laws to tackle fake news, namely what the laws cover and who has final say on what is true or false.

SINGAPORE — As questions are raised about the power given to government ministers to determine falsehoods under newly proposed laws to tackle fake news, Law and Home Affairs Ministers K Shanmugam stressed that the Government is not the “final decider of what is true and not true”.

The courts, he said, have the final say.

Speaking to reporters at the Ministry of Law on Tuesday (April 2), he reiterated that those accused of putting out falsehoods have the right to appeal to the courts to challenge the Government’s orders.

After the Protection from Online Falsehoods and Manipulation Bill was tabled in Parliament on Monday, Mr Shanmugam noted that one misconception that has surfaced is that the Government defines what constitutes a falsehood.

“It is also suggested the Government is the final decider of what is true and not true,” he said. “That is completely not the case. The Government is not the final decider. The courts decide.”

 

The draft laws, aimed at countering deliberate online falsehoods that could be weaponised to undermine society, give government ministers broad powers to direct online news sites and platforms to publish corrections alongside the falsehoods made, and in extreme cases, issue a takedown order, for example.

They can only do so if there is a falsehood of fact and if it acts against public interest, such as undermining the country’s security, public health or finances, influencing the outcome of elections as well as undermining public institutions, among others.

Mr Shanmugam clarified that the Government makes the first decision in deciding if a statement is a falsehood of fact. This is necessary as malicious falsehoods can “travel very far” within a few hours, which could lead to “massive consequences”.

He cited examples of fake news that took place overseas which had disastrous effects. In Myanmar, for instance, a falsehood that two Muslim men raped a Buddhist woman led to an uprising of armed mobs within 24 hours. It resulted in two days of violence, leaving two people dead and scores injured.

Repeating what he told reporters on Monday, he said that the primary approach of the new legislation is to publish corrections alongside the falsehoods made. It allows the Government to set the record straight.

“So, you set out the truth, ask for a correction,” he said. “The Government intervenes and says this is not true and can you please put out a correction. And if it is very dangerous, (we) can also ask for it to be taken down and (give) illustrations.

“Let’s say the person who has put out the allegation, he disagrees and says, ‘No this is true, that Chinese clan did say that it will only employ Chinese or it is true that such and such a person has died, or it is true that such and such a bank is bankrupt’, then that can be dealt with in the courts.

“The courts decide ultimately what is true and what is false and they will be the final arbiters.”

NEW LAWS DO NOT TARGET OPINIONS

Another misconception is that the Bill could also target opinions, Mr Shanmugam said.

The new laws cover only false statement of fact. An example of this is a statement where a Chinese clan said that it only employs Chinese people.

“It’s important to know what (the Bill) doesn’t cover — it doesn’t cover criticisms, it doesn’t cover opinions, it doesn’t cover viewpoints,” Mr Shanmugam said again.

“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.”

Therefore, it is incorrect to say that opinions will be caught under the new laws or free speech will be affected — another point which he had emphasised before when he spoke to reporters on Monday.

Similarly, it is untrue that Singaporeans cannot express their views on issues once the new laws are in place.

Mr Shanmugam’s comments come on the back of criticisms by civil rights activists who said that the proposed laws are arbitrary and too sweeping. Freelance journalist Kirsten Han said that the Bill gives ministers “so much discretion”, while academic Thum Ping Tjin said that the proposed laws make the Government the “final arbiter” and could create a climate of fear and self-censorship.

Both had earlier made similar comments during their oral testimonies at a select committee’s public hearings on deliberate online falsehoods last year.

Without referring to any of those criticisms in particular, Mr Shanmugam said: “You can expect that in any such discussion, there will be a range of viewpoints.

“And there is a group of people, usual people, who will immediately come out and try and confuse the picture and put out their own version — alternate reality, I call it. And we just have to tell the public what the position is. The Bill is there, people can read it.”

Social media company Facebook also expressed concerns, saying that there are aspects of the law that grant “broad powers to the Singapore executive branch to compel us to remove content they deem to be false and pro-actively push a government notification to users”.

Asked how the Government will engage the tech companies, Mr Shanmugam said consultations with them have been going on for close to two years. They also made their representations at the select committee’s public hearings last year. “We will continue to consult with them,” he added.

It is “very heartening”, he noted, that Facebook’s founder Mark Zuckerberg recently called on governments to implement regulations governing the Internet, including rules on hateful content and election integrity.

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