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Observers call for greater checks and balances in empowering government leaders to correct what is false

SINGAPORE — Following the tabling of the Protection from Online Falsehoods and Manipulation Bill in Parliament on Monday (April 1), academics and advocates of free speech have raised concerns that it could dampen public discourse.

SINGAPORE — Following the tabling of the Protection from Online Falsehoods and Manipulation Bill in Parliament on Monday (April 1), academics and advocates of free speech have raised concerns that it could dampen public discourse.

Others said that there should be checks and balances in the process to ensure that ministers do not abuse their powers in calling out what is true or false.

They were among those who made submissions as individuals or were part of the organisations that made representations to the Select Committee on Deliberate Online Falsehoods last year.

The proposed laws to tackle fake news and online falsehoods grant sweeping powers to the Government to stop the dissemination of such content and punish those who create or spread them.

And all government ministers will have the power to issue a variety of orders, such as directing online news sites to publish corrections to falsehoods. In extreme cases, they will be able to order the publisher to take down an article or order Internet service providers to disable user access to errant sites.

Aggrieved parties may seek recourse by appealing to the government minister first, failing which they may appeal to the courts.

Professor Cherian George, who teaches media studies at the Hong Kong Baptist University, said that the proposed laws could have a “chilling effect” on political expression and independent journalism.

He called for Parliament to ensure that the laws will not be exploited to quash legitimate criticism that had a couple of inconsequential facts wrong.

Calling the Bill “worrying”, freelance journalist Kirsten Han highlighted that Singaporeans may not have time and money to apply to the High Court to overturn a government minister’s direction.  

Assistant Professor Liew Kai Khiun from the Wee Kim Wee School of Communication and Information at Nanyang Technological University, said that the art and media industries also needed greater assurance that the regulations are not targeted against them.

“I do think the authorities should state that the principal purpose of the new laws are meant to combat shadowy forces rather than artistes, journalists and activists in open discussion,” he said.

However, others such as law lecturer Eugene Tan from the Singapore Management University (SMU) said that the proposed laws were “calibrated” and demonstrated the Government’s consistent approach towards free speech.

“The proposed laws strike a reasonable balance between protecting free speech and coming down in a no-nonsense way on fake news.

“It’s reasonable because it does not have a censorious effect except in egregious cases where a take-down order is issued,” he said.

As for aggrieved parties having to appeal to the government minister first before going to court, Associate Professor Tan said that such procedures are a “standard feature” in regulatory regimes where internal remedies have to be exhausted first before taking the case to court.

For instance, under the Housing and Development Board (HDB) Act, the owner of an HDB flat may challenge HDB’s decision to compulsorily acquire his or her unit by appealing to the Minister of National Development first, before turning to the courts if the appeal failed.


Mr Jakub Janda, director of Prague-based think-tank European Values, suggested that one way to hold the Government accountable for its decisions is to have a parliamentary body to receive and review quarterly reports on government action. Or else, a special body of public figures could be formed to oversee the Government’s actions, he added.

Assistant Professor Benjamin Joshua Ong from the School of Law at SMU, said that a specialised tribunal could also help ministers decide when to issue directions. Such tribunals would operate faster and more efficiently than a government minister, who may otherwise be bogged down by his or her workload.

A tribunal may also be better in terms of public perception of transparency, especially if the alleged false statement is a statement about the minister in question, he added.


Assoc Prof Ong is also of the view that the Government is unlikely to block access to news websites that posted statements it deemed to be false.

To do so would be a “politically costly move” that could open the Government to accusations that it is infringing on freedom of expression and the right of the people to use the websites for innocent purposes, he added.

Agreeing, Assoc Prof Tan believes that even if such an action is taken, it is likely to be symbolic given that websites can be accessed through other means.

“The Government is realistic and pragmatic and therefore has not made take-down orders the mainstay of the new legislation,” he added.


In future, the Government will likely be more careful about using the terms “fake news” or “falsehoods”, Assoc Prof Tan said.

Too liberal or too frequent a use of those terms without the intention to take any legal action may lessen the impact of the law, he added.

He noted that with the Bill, the Government has made clear that Singapore does not view all speech as worthy of equal protection and there will be an increasing focus on “responsible speech”.

Ms Han also said that the Government should be especially careful about how it uses the term “fake news”. For example, it should explain what it thinks is wrong with the online content, such as whether it is biased or misleading, rather than just terming something as “fake news”.

Additional reporting by Cynthia Choo and Louisa Tang

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