Monday, 1 April 2019

Singapore to introduce new law to prevent spread of fake news; the Protection from Online Falsehoods and Manipulation Bill introduced in Parliament on 1 Apr 2019

Online news sites must publish corrections on fake news, take down false articles under proposed law: PM Lee Hsien Loong
By Linette Lai, Political Correspondent, The Straits Times, 30 Mar 2019

Singapore is to introduce a law that will require online news sites to publish corrections or warnings on fake news, or even remove such articles in extreme cases, Prime Minister Lee Hsien Loong said yesterday.

These new measures to tackle the spread of fake news are part of the Protection from Online Falsehoods and Manipulation Bill, which will be introduced in Parliament on Monday.

The move, a key recommendation of a Select Committee, will put Singapore among the first countries to take steps to legislate this increasingly serious problem faced by many countries.

PM Lee said the Bill will empower the Government to hold online news sources and platforms accountable if they allow deliberate falsehoods to proliferate.

"This includes requiring them to show corrections or display warnings about online falsehoods so that readers or viewers can see all sides and make up their own minds about the matter.

"In extreme and urgent cases, the legislation will also require online news sources to take down fake news before irreparable damage is done," he added in a speech on the changing media landscape at the 20th anniversary celebrations of news provider Channel NewsAsia, which will now be called CNA.



Also at the event at St Regis hotel, attended by about 300 people, were Mrs Lee, Minister for Communications and Information S. Iswaran and his Senior Ministers of State Janil Puthucheary and Sim Ann.

On Monday, Law and Home Affairs Minister K. Shanmugam is scheduled to deliver a ministerial statement on restricting hate speech to maintain racial and religious harmony in Singapore.

An Institute of Policy Studies research paper released on Thursday showed that one in four Singaporeans has no qualms about allowing extremist religious leaders to share their views online, as long as they do not instigate harm against others.

Fake news plagues many nations, and PM Lee said governments are studying it closely and deciding what measures to take. The French have passed a law allowing their judges to order the immediate removal of fake news from the Internet during election campaigns.

But legislation alone is not enough, PM Lee said. Such laws must be supplemented by citizens who are alert to the problem of fake news, well-informed of what is going on in the world, and provided with the means to make sound assessments of what they read and hear, he added.

Students are taught information literacy and cyber wellness in schools, and the National Library Board provides tips on such issues for the general population. The Government's Factually website also publishes the facts on government policies or issues of public interest.

"But spotting fake news is easier said than done. In general, people are overconfident about their ability to do so," PM Lee said, adding that even the most intelligent and well-trained people can fall victim to such falsehoods.

CNA, therefore, plays an important role in Singapore's society, he said, urging it to invest in its people, build capabilities, and take advantage of Singapore's status as a media and technology hub. "The Government... will work hand in hand with you," he said. "We share an interest in fostering an informed society through quality journalism."

Mediacorp chairman Niam Chiang Meng noted: "Accuracy is no longer as valued as in the past. It is no wonder that public indifference and cynicism have grown."

CNA, he said, intends to be an impartial provider of accurate information and insights.



















No shortage of coordinated campaigns to misinform and mislead, says PM Lee
By Adrian Lim, Political Correspondent, The Straits Times, 30 Mar 2019

Nowadays, there is no shortage of people and groups conducting coordinated campaigns to produce fake news to misinform and mislead, Prime Minister Lee Hsien Loong said yesterday.

They may do it for financial gain, to sow discord or even to radicalise people, he added.

Such fake news is propagated with factual stories on social media platforms, which are either unwilling or unable to take action to block the misinformation. This has become a serious problem for many countries, PM Lee said as he announced that a draft law is to be introduced to tackle online falsehoods.

Speaking ahead of the tabling of the Protection from Online Falsehoods and Manipulation Bill in Parliament on Monday, PM Lee said many governments are studying the problem closely and deciding what measures to take.

They are looking into how to prevent fake news from undermining trust and confidence in institutions, and spreading hate and disharmony in society, while maintaining a balance of freedom of expression, he said.



Giving examples, PM Lee said the United States held hearings to investigate how social media platforms like Facebook were used to influence its 2016 presidential election.

Last July, the British Parliament convened an inquiry into fake news.

In Singapore, a Select Committee was convened in January last year to better understand and deal with the threat of online falsehoods.

Singapore is "particularly vulnerable", PM Lee told an audience of about 300, who had gathered at St Regis hotel to celebrate the 20th anniversary of Channel NewsAsia, now called CNA.

"We are open and English-speaking, our mobile and Internet penetration rate is high, and being a multi-racial and multi-ethnic society, we have enduring fault lines that can be easily exploited," he said.

"If we don't protect ourselves, hostile parties will find it a simple matter to turn different groups against one another and cause disorder in our society."

PM Lee said the Select Committee on Deliberate Online Falsehoods, convened in January last year, made several practical recommendations for the Government, companies, individuals and society to work together to fortify Singapore's defences against fake news.

"The Government has accepted the Select Committee's proposals, including to pass legislation to tackle this problem," he said.

Other measures proposed in its report released last September include having a national framework to guide public education on falsehoods.

As part of its work, the Select Committee held public hearings over eight days in March last year to listen to oral representations from 65 individuals and organisations. The 10-member committee was chaired by Deputy Speaker of Parliament Charles Chong.



Observers such as Professor Ang Peng Hwa said Singapore, in moving to pass legislation, is taking a proactive approach and learning from countries such as France and Germany, where falsehoods have created harm and prompted laws to tackle them.

But Prof Ang, who is from Nanyang Technological University's Wee Kim Wee School of Communication and Information, added that the Bill needs a close look, such as on who will determine what is a falsehood. Also, it should offer some "limited immunity", allowing websites and platforms to remove falsehoods posted by netizens in a reasonable amount of time before action is taken, he said.

MP Darryl David, a member of the Government Parliamentary Committee for Communications and Information, said the Bill is "very timely".

In the digital age, when news can spread like wildfire, "the potential impact of a falsehood is significant and can lead to social unrest or violence in Singapore, or threaten national security," Mr David added.

MP Cedric Foo, the GPC's chairman, said there must be education to ensure people cultivate the habit of fact-checking information.

Mr Foo also said individuals from civil society, who like to opine on issues - and do so without malice - should not have to worry.

"If you truly believe in what you say, and you have to attach a correction to it, that is still free speech.

"But if there are serious grounds for concern, the Government needs to move fast before more serious things happen, like riots breaking out. In such a situation, a take-down action is crucial," he added.




















Parliament: Up to 10 years’ jail for individuals and $1 million fine for firms under draft law against online falsehoods
* Those who spread falsehoods with malicious intent face penalty * Ministers to get power to order content correction or removal * Opinions, criticisms, satire or parody not included in the Bill
By Tham Yuen-C, Senior Political Correspondent, The Straits Times, 2 Apr 2019

People in Singapore who spread online falsehoods with a malicious intent to harm public interest could face jail terms of up to 10 years, under a draft law designed to protect society from fake news.

Internet platforms, including social media sites like Facebook, will also be required to act swiftly to limit the spread of falsehoods by displaying corrections alongside such posts, or removing them.

Failure to comply could result in fines of up to $1 million.

Individuals can also be directed to put up similar corrections and could be fined up to $20,000 and jailed up to 12 months if they refuse to do so.

The Protection from Online Falsehoods and Manipulation Bill, introduced in Parliament yesterday, will add to Singapore's arsenal against fake news, and comes as countries worldwide scramble to stem the spread of misinformation online.

For action to be triggered under the proposed law, two criteria must be met: There must be a false statement of fact put up online, and it must be in the public interest for the Government to take action.

This means opinions, criticisms, satire or parody are not caught by the Bill, which will not penalise people who criticise the Government without making false claims.

Examples of false or misleading statements of fact include assertions like the Government has declared war on the country's neighbours, when it has not done so.

On the other hand, statements of opinion like "the Government is to blame for rising inequality" will not fall within the ambit of the new law.



The Bill gives ministers powers to implement a range of non-punitive remedies to curb the impact of online falsehoods.

Besides this provision, "malicious actors" who knowingly spread falsehoods to undermine society will face criminal sanctions. For instance, those who deliberately spread falsehoods online, knowing they could influence the outcome of a political election, can be fined up to $50,000, or jailed a maximum of five years, or both.

Those who use bots - software applications that run automated tasks over the Internet - to amplify the spread of untruths will be punished more severely. They can be fined up to $100,000 and jailed for a maximum of 10 years.

People who innocently forward something on WhatsApp, or share a post on Facebook, will not be criminally liable.

The draft law also sets out a code of practice for technology companies as an upstream measure to prevent the abuse of Internet platforms to propagate untruths.

"Essentially, you have to take a policy viewpoint as to whether anyone can be allowed, in pursuit of profit, to damage your country... as a Government, we owe a duty to our citizens to make sure we protect our society," Law and Home Affairs Minister K. Shanmugam told reporters at the Law Ministry yesterday.

Minister for Communications and Information S. Iswaran said at a media briefing last Thursday: "You cannot be assured that this is going to be foolproof because social media and technology are evolving. But we are hoping that imposing these measures will have a leavening effect on these platforms."

About 20 countries have turned to legislation to fix the problem of fake news, which has sparked riots and undermined democracy by affecting election results.

A parliamentary Select Committee convened last year to study the issue had recommended that Singapore take a "multi-pronged approach" against the scourge.

At the weekend, Facebook founder and chief executive Mark Zuckerberg said there should be " a more active role for governments and regulators". The social network, with 3.5 million users every month here, has come under fire for enabling the spread of misinformation.

Mr Shanmugam said he expects the Government to take mostly non-punitive measures.

"Our preference is to leave the material there (and) just have something which says 'this is inaccurate, for the truth go to such a place'. That way, people can read what they want and make up their own mind."

The Government also has other tools, like cutting off advertisements on fake news sites.

People can challenge its decisions in the High Court or seek judicial review to see if it has gone against other laws.

On whether the move will lead to censorship, Mr Shanmugam said requiring people to put up corrections encourages, rather than restricts, free speech as it exposes people to more viewpoints. "So, in fact, it is calibrated to allow for more informed discussion on issues," he added.

Parliament will debate the Bill in the coming months.






















Parliament: Ministers to decide what is fake news under proposed law
Decentralised approach aimed at dealing with online falsehoods in a speedy manner
By Tham Yuen-C, Senior Political Correspondent, The Straits Times, 2 Apr 2019

The Government will make the decision on what is deemed false under proposed laws to fight the spread of online falsehoods.

The Protection from Online Falsehoods and Manipulation Bill gives Singapore's ministers the power to trigger actions, such as the correction or removal of false content.

This decentralised approach is aimed at tackling online falsehoods in a speedy way, given their tendency to go viral quickly.


Minister for Communications and Information S. Iswaran, speaking to reporters at a briefing on the Bill last Thursday, said: "The domain minister, advised by his officials, is in the best position to decide whether something is a falsehood and assess its impact on public interest."

Once the false content is deemed to be harmful to public interest, the minister will work with the competent authority in the Infocomm Media Development Authority of Singapore (IMDA) on the action to take. For instance, he can order corrections to run alongside the false content or ask for it to be taken down.

He can also order the blocking of accounts or sites that are spreading the untruths.

Each minister will deal with falsehoods under his or her domain. For instance, falsehoods about hospitals will come under the Health Minister, while falsehoods about banks will come under the Finance Minister.

The Bill also provides for criminal sanctions against "malicious actors" who deliberately spread falsehoods against public interest.

In such cases, the police will investigate, and those responsible will be charged in court. If found guilty, they can be fined or sent to jail.



Speaking on the safeguards in the law, Mr Iswaran said while many other laws in Singapore make reference to public interest, the Bill goes a step further and spells out what constitutes public interest.

For instance, something is deemed to be in the public interest if it is in the interest of Singapore's security, has to do with the protection of public health or finances, and is in the interest of friendly relations with other countries, among other things.

Under the Bill, ministers can act only when two conditions are met: A false statement of a fact has been communicated in Singapore through the Internet, and when it is in the public interest to intervene.

While people and technology companies will have to comply with the orders to avoid penalties, those who feel aggrieved can seek redress through the courts, which will have the final say on what is false.

To avoid a conflict of interest during political elections, the Bill provides for an "alternate authority" to be designated during election time.

Ministers must devolve their powers to senior civil servants during these periods, and must do so before an election is called.








5 THINGS TO KNOW ABOUT DRAFT LAW AGAINST ONLINE FALSEHOODS
By Ng Huiwen, The Straits Times, 2 Apr 2019

Tabled yesterday, the Protection from Online Falsehoods and Manipulation Bill seeks to protect society from damage by online falsehoods created by "malicious actors".

1 How does the Bill define falsehood?

The law, if passed, is aimed at providing the Government with powers to act against online falsehoods in order to protect the public interest.

A falsehood is defined as a statement of fact that is false or misleading. It does not cover opinions, criticisms, satire or parody, which the public can continue to upload and share.

The Bill lists several definitions of public interest, which includes Singapore's security, protection of public health or public safety, and Singapore's friendly relations with other countries.

Other scenarios: to prevent influence on the outcome of an election or a referendum; to prevent incitement of feelings of enmity, hatred or ill-will between different groups of persons; or to prevent a diminution of public confidence in public institutions.


2 What will happen if a falsehood is identified?

For action to be taken, there are two criteria that must be met: There must be a false statement of fact, and it must also be in the public interest.

The minister, advised by his officials, will decide whether something is a falsehood and assess its impact on public interest.

Once that judgment is made, the ministers will work with a competent authority within the Infocomm Media Development Authority of Singapore (IMDA) on the action.

This could include an order to run a correction alongside the falsehood or to take it down. It can also involve blocking certain accounts and sites that are spreading the falsehood.

The Ministry of Law (MinLaw) said research has shown that corrections work, and are an important antidote to falsehoods. Website owners will have to ensure that those who previously read the falsehood also see the correction.

Corrections will be the primary action of the Bill. In more serious cases, take-down orders may be issued to remove the falsehoods.


3 So, when will criminal sanctions apply?

Only "malicious actors", or those who act to deliberately undermine society using falsehoods, will be subject to criminal action.

Those who deliberately spread falsehoods online, knowing it can influence the outcome of an election, can be fined up to $50,000, or jailed for up to five years, or both, if found guilty in court.

Those who use bots to amplify the spread of falsehoods will be subject to more severe punishments. They can be fined up to $100,000 and jailed for up to 10 years.

The courts will have the final say on what is false. This means that any decision by the Government on what is false can be overridden by the courts on appeal.


4 How else can the Bill prevent fake news from spreading?

Fake online accounts or bots that spread falsehoods against the public interest can also be disabled.

MinLaw said this targets the use of inauthentic accounts or bots to manipulate and distort discourse among people.

The Bill will also set out binding Codes of Practice for technology companies to keep their online platforms safe and secure.

It will focus on three areas: fake online accounts and bots, digital advertising transparency, and de-prioritising falsehoods.


5 What if a website continues to report fake news?

With the Bill, an online site that repeatedly spreads falsehoods will have its profits cut off, though it will not be shut down.

This will happen to sites that have published three different falsehoods against the public interest in the preceding six months.

Internet platforms including social media sites like Facebook will also be required to act swiftly to limit the spread of falsehoods by displaying corrections alongside posts or removing them.

Failure to comply could result in fines of up to $1 million.
















Parliament: Law against online falsehoods will not stifle free speech: Shanmugam
By Tham Yuen-C, Senior Political Correspondent, The Straits Times, 2 Apr 2019

The draft law against online falsehoods will not affect the right to free speech, and could even encourage it by exposing people to more viewpoints, Law and Home Affairs Minister K. Shanmugam said yesterday.

He was addressing concerns that the Protection from Online Falsehoods and Manipulation Bill can lead to censorship, given that it vests the Government with the power to decide what is false and also to order actions or mete out punishments.

Mr Shanmugam said the proposed law deals with statements of fact and not with opinions.

Referring to the Select Committee hearings held in March last year on the issue of deliberate online falsehoods, he said: "Lawyers will know, you can define what is true and what is false when you refer to facts... (This legislation) doesn't deal with viewpoints. You can have whatever viewpoints, however reasonable or unreasonable."

In fact, Mr Shanmugam said, leaving falsehoods to spread will crowd out legitimate debate.

He highlighted what he called the modern phenomenon of people spreading falsehoods in the marketplace of ideas to confuse others and to alter the terms of debate.

Singapore is among 20 countries that have implemented laws or are considering them to tackle the problem of fake news.

"I will say we are behind the curve in the sense that there are a lot of falsehoods being propagated.

"If they are not dealt with, then free speech itself will be undermined, democracy will be undermined, public institutions will be undermined, and that is happening everywhere. So, we have to deal with it," said the minister.

He stressed that the primary tool in the Bill to deal with the impact of online falsehoods is to require people or Internet platforms to carry corrections alongside content that is deemed false.

This means the facts will be put up along with the false content, and people can decide for themselves what they want to believe, he added.

"It is not as if primarily (people are) required to take down (their posts). So, what is the abuse?" he said, rebutting suggestions that the law could be used to clamp down on free speech.

The minister also sought to allay fears that ordinary citizens using social media to share news or information may unwittingly share fake news and be penalised by the law.

"The criminal sanctions only apply when there was deliberateness in the conduct, if they knew it was a falsehood and they were deliberately putting it out and it impacts on public interest," he said. "So, innocent sharing won't attract criminal responsibility."

The Government has also been working with technology companies on how they can comply with the legislation and regulation, Minister for Communications and Information S. Iswaran said at a briefing last Thursday on the Bill.

"It is not entirely unexpected that when you introduce regulation to a domain that was previously unregulated, there is going to be pushback, both at a philosophical level and practical level," he added.

"Introducing the legislation is the first step. We will continue to engage and work with the tech companies in the implementation of the legislation and also on the overall broader suite of efforts necessary to counter disinformation in the online space."

Legislation is not the only tool in Singapore's arsenal against online falsehoods, he said.

His ministry has embarked on a series of initiatives to raise public awareness of such untruths and educate people on how to spot them.

This is in line with the recommendations of the Select Committee set up to examine the dangers of online falsehoods. It had recommended in its September report that Singapore take a "multi-pronged response", including legislative and non-legislative measures.

The recommendations, accepted by the Government, included suggestions on improving media and information literacy among Singaporeans and promoting fact-checking.

"Netizens are our first and most important line of defence," Mr Iswaran said.

"The Internet and social media is a common space, and we all have an interest in ensuring that the information it carries is truthful and it remains a shared resource that we can all benefit from."





* Government makes initial decision on falsehood but courts are final arbiter of truth: Shanmugam
By Tham Yuen-C, Senior Political Correspondent, The Straits Times, 3 Apr 2019

There is a need for the Government to make the initial decision to act against falsehoods which could go viral in a matter of minutes, but it is the courts that will be the final arbiter of what is true and what is false, Law and Home Affairs Minister K. Shanmugam said yesterday.

Speaking on the draft law targeting online falsehoods, he also noted that it covers only false statement of facts, and does not cover criticism, opinions, satire and parody.



The Protection from Online Falsehoods and Manipulation Bill, introduced in Parliament on Monday, is designed to protect society against the harm caused by fake news.

It provides for criminal sanctions against those who deliberately spread falsehoods to cause harm, and also gives ministers the power to order corrections or removals of online falsehoods, among other things.

This has sparked criticism in some quarters, with some people saying that the proposed law makes the Government the arbiter of truth.

Addressing the concerns, Mr Shanmugam told reporters at the Ministry of Law that it is "completely not the case" that the Government makes the final call on what is true or false.

The Bill gives ministers the power to make the initial decision on a falsehood because there is a need to act fast to prevent its spread, he said.

"There can be massive consequences when people deliberately put out and trade in untruths, so it has to be dealt with quickly. Within a few hours, the falsehoods can travel very far," he added.

But the minister's decision can be challenged in court and can be overturned, he said. "The courts decide ultimately what is true and what is false, and they will be the final arbiters," he added.

The Bill also allows a minister to order the correction or removal of any online content only when two criteria are met: It must be a factual falsehood, and it has to harm the public interest.

Citing examples, Mr Shanmugam said such falsehoods could have dire, real-world consequences, which is why they must be removed quickly.

For instance, a false story about two Muslim men raping a Buddhist woman in Myanmar had sparked lynch mobs within 24 hours, leading to deaths and injuries.

In Indonesia, a false claim about a Chinese woman denigrating a mosque went viral in 24 hours, and brought out angry mobs that ransacked and destroyed 14 Buddhist temples.

These falsehoods are distinct from criticisms, opinions and viewpoints, which are not covered by the law, said Mr Shanmugam.

"Facts which are false are very easy to identify, false or true. And that is what this (Bill) covers," the minister added.



He said people can continue to criticise the Government and express their views on politics and current affairs without fearing that they will run afoul of the proposed law.

For instance, saying "the Government is to be blamed for rising inequality", "human rights in Singapore is being curtailed" and "the Government is not giving back my CPF (savings)" will not attract any punishments or sanctions under the law.

"All of those are opinions, and it doesn't get caught by this Bill," said Mr Shanmugam.

He added that the Bill relates primarily to people who "put out falsehoods to create mayhem, to create trouble, to create anger and hopefully violence".

"So, it is completely not true to say... all sorts of opinions will be caught or free speech will be affected or I cannot express viewpoints. Nor is it true to say the Government is going to decide what I can say, what I cannot say," said Mr Shanmugam, acknowledging that the Government has to explain these aspects of the Bill more clearly.





WHAT IS COVERED AND WHAT IS NOT

The Protection from Online Falsehoods and Manipulation Bill covers statements of fact that are false or misleading, and not opinions, criticism, satire or parody. Below are some examples.

WHAT IS COVERED

Statements of fact that are false

• Bank has lost $20 billion.

• Foreign workers vandalised several places of worship across Singapore.

• The Government has declared war against Singapore's neighbours.

• Drunk foreign workers gang-raped a Singaporean girl studying at the HDB void deck late at night.

• Chinese business association requires members to hire "Chinese only".

• Sentosa will, in 10 years, be developed into a private theme park for millionaires only.

NOT COVERED

Opinions and criticism

• The Government is applying double standards and being hypocritical.

• The Government must take responsibility for the inequality that is now Singapore's biggest problem.

• Currently, the ban of events appears arbitrary at best. More transparent laws are needed.

• Recent lapses point to deeper problems in the Government. When will there be genuine accountability?

• Recent lapses by the Government show that standards are slipping.

• Singapore's institutions and policies are often elitist.

• The Government is not giving back my Central Provident Fund money.

• The cost of living is rising.

• HDB prices are too high.

• Certificate of entitlement prices are too high.

• Human rights in Singapore are being curtailed.

• We can't hold a protest in Singapore.





Satire and parody

• Satire is the use of humour, ridicule, irony or exaggeration to make fun of or expose and criticise a person or an organisation.

• Examples of satire include comics that convey the illustrator's take on political issues or events.

• Parody is a form of satire that imitates the characteristic style of a particular individual or genre, using deliberate exaggeration for comic effect.

• Examples of parody include television shows here with characters that imitate MPs and ministers.





Govt will have to safeguard trust in using powers: Edwin Tong
It is mindful that wrong judgments on what is deemed false will hit its public standing
By Tham Yuen-C,Senior Political Correspondent, The Straits Times, 4 Apr 2019

If the Government wrongly determines that a piece of content is false, and the courts overturn its decision, it will be subject to costs and consequences, Senior Minister of State for Law and Health Edwin Tong said yesterday.

"Over time, if this keeps happening, then trust in the Government will also be undermined and the natural consequences will follow," he told a forum at Singapore Management University (SMU).

Mr Tong's comments come amid concern from some over the broad powers the Government would get in determining what is false under the Protection from Online Falsehoods and Manipulation Bill, tabled in Parliament on Monday.

Ministers would have discretion to act swiftly against online falsehoods that harm the public interest, by ordering corrections or for content to be taken down. But those who disagree with such decisions can challenge them in court.



Reiterating this safeguard at the forum titled Truth and Lies: Trust in Times of Information Disorder, Mr Tong said such powers were "not very different from how the Government might be expected to react if there was anything that affected the safety of our society". He said: "It might be physical safety, it might be from toxic gases, it might be from diseases. If we have basis to believe that public interest would be undermined, then the Government must make the first call."

In remarks at the end of the half-day event, SMU law school dean Goh Yihan said it was not uncommon for the Government to be given the power to swiftly make a decision and then to allow that decision to be challenged in the courts.

"This might be the right balance to be struck in the fake news legislation because it enables dangerous fake news that may cause irreversible damage to be removed quickly, but it does leave recourse to the speaker or whoever... to then challenge the executive's decision."

Prof Goh said to laughter: "I am astounded by the number of fake news that has been passed about the fake news Bill."

He added it was "entirely untrue" to say that the ministers are the final arbiters of truth under the proposed law, adding that articles and posts claiming so show precisely how dangerous fake news can be "because it distorts our debate on an important piece of legislation".

The forum was organised by SMU with Nanyang Technological University's S. Rajaratnam School of International Studies and Singapore Press Holdings (SPH).



Mr Tong was also asked if it would be feasible to have an information ombudsman, as some witnesses before the Select Committee convened last year had suggested. He said he would not rule it out, but this will likely sit outside the domain of the Bill.

Separately, an SPH spokesman also raised this in comments on the Bill yesterday. "While we understand the need to act quickly in some instances, we continue to believe that an independent authority would have provided a neutral avenue for content creators or news organisations to appeal to, short of resorting to a legal challenge."

This was among the suggestions the company had when it appeared before the Select Committee convened last year to hear from the public on the issue of online falsehoods.

Mediacorp said: "This is a significant piece of legislation that needs to be studied further to understand the details and their implications."

Among those who criticised the Bill was Human Rights Watch (HRW), which called it a blatant violation of free speech and an affront to Internet freedom in a statement.

"Singapore's government wants to be the arbiter of what anyone can say about Singapore anywhere in the world," said HRW's deputy director for Asia Phil Robertson. "Governments and businesses around the world should call on Singapore to withdraw it immediately."

The Ministry of Law replied that this was part of HRW's "long-standing practice of issuing biased and one-sided statements about Singapore". The group was invited last year by the Select Committee to give its views, and had initially said yes, but later decided not to turn up.

"HRW did not dare to come before the Select Committee because it knew that its views were biased and indefensible, and without any basis in fact," said the ministry, adding the committee had also offered to fund travel costs of HRW's representative or to hold the hearing via video-conferencing. "The Singapore Government will generally not respond further to HRW until HRW confirms that it is prepared to defend its views," MinLaw added.





'Make redress easier under fake-news Bill'
Avenues for redress should not be onerous, says Charles Chong
He responds to public feedback on costs of challenging govt action
By Linette Lai, Political Correspondent and Tham Yuen-C, Senior Political Correspondent, The Sunday Times, 7 Apr 2019

Mounting a challenge against a minister's order for corrections or takedowns of online falsehoods, under a proposed law, should be made less onerous, said Deputy Speaker of Parliament Charles Chong.

This would provide the assurance that there are adequate avenues to seek redress when there is disagreement with the Government's decision, said Mr Chong, who chaired the Select Committee on Deliberate Online Falsehoods last year.

"Most people should feel that they have avenues to seek redress," he told The Sunday Times last Friday, without suggesting what exactly the Government should do.

Mr Chong was responding to public feedback that has arisen since the Protection from Online Falsehoods and Manipulation Bill was tabled last Monday.

Under the draft law, ministers are given powers to order corrections or removals of online falsehoods, and also ask for sites spreading such falsehoods to be blocked, when they harm public interest.

These decisions can be challenged in court - which will be the final arbiter - after applications to the ministers to vary or cancel the orders are rejected.

But critics have pointed out that the average person may be unable to afford the monetary costs of challenging the Government's decision under the draft law.

Another area of concern is that the Bill could stifle freedom of expression. But lawyer Chia Yong Yong, who was also on the committee, said the scope of the draft law is confined to the communication of false statements of fact which are against public interest.

"In the first place, there is no fundamental liberty to tell or spread lies, and freedom of expression is constitutionally circumscribed by elements of public interest," noted the former Nominated MP.

Hong Kong Baptist University professor of media studies Cherian George, though, said the Bill is so broadly worded that it could potentially be abused by the Government to quash legitimate criticism.

Writing in a blog post last Tuesday that the law gives politicians a "tempting tool for dodging accountability", he suggested an independent regulator should be appointed to decide on a falsehood.



To this, Senior Minister of State for Law and Health Edwin Tong in a Facebook post last Wednesday said ministers will have to be accountable for their decision before the High Court, if an appeal is filed.

As elected officials, ministers are also politically accountable. A regulator, on the other hand, does not have to account to the electorate, added Mr Tong, who was also on the 10-member Select Committee.

"Prof George must decide whether he wishes to have accountability, as the Bill currently provides, or for the decision to be made by a regulator shielded from political accountability," he said.

Responding to Mr Tong, Prof George wrote yesterday: "Any citizen should wish for both accountability as well as checks and balances. Checks and balances are best exercised by a variety of institutions, some elected, some non-elected."

Another issue highlighted by Prof George is what the courts can decide on when a person wants to challenge the Government's decision. He said the Bill allows the courts to deal with only the question of whether something was a falsehood, and not whether a minister was acting in the public interest.

On this point, Mr Tong said the Bill follows an established position of the courts, which have said that public interest is best dealt with by public officials.

The Bill was among one of the recommendations of the Select Committee to deal with the problem of online falsehoods.

In its report submitted to Parliament last September, the committee said a law was necessary to deal with malicious actors who spread falsehoods to undermine society, and to give the Government the powers to act swiftly against such falsehoods to limit its impact.

Among its recommendations pertaining to legislation was for government intervention to be calibrated. The draft law provides for a tiered system of measures, from corrections an d removals to criminal sanctions.

Ms Rahayu Mahzam, an MP for Jurong GRC and also a member of the Select Committee, said: "Personally, I feel the draft Bill matches the calibrated approach well."

The Select Committee had also said there needed to be adequate safeguards in the Bill to ensure the proper exercise of power.

Noting that this recommendation had been put in place by allowing people to appeal to the courts, Mr Chong said: "Fundamentally, the Government is not the judge, the jury and the prosecutor.

"The ministers are empowered to act quickly and their decision will be subject to review by the courts. In that sense, the courts will be the final arbiter."





Who fake news law would target
Proposed law targets only those who spread fake news deliberately: Shanmugam
Those who spread it without knowing the truth or based on a misunderstanding will not face penalties
Shanmugam pledges 'fast and relatively inexpensive' court appeals process
By Linette Lai, Political Correspondent, The Straits Times, 10 Apr 2019

Only those who deliberately fabricate news and spread falsehoods are liable to face criminal charges under the proposed law against fake news, Law and Home Affairs Minister K. Shanmugam told The Straits Times yesterday.

Those who spread fake news without knowing the truth have nothing to fear. Similarly, a person who starts something based on a misunderstanding will not face penalties, he added.

"There might be one person who deliberately puts the falsehood out, and then there might be thousands who spread it," Mr Shanmugam said in spelling out what behaviour would be targeted by the Protection from Online Falsehoods and Manipulation Act, and how malicious intent would be determined by the police and prosecution.

"The Bill doesn't seek to impose criminal penalties on the thousands who spread the original post, as many people do, without knowing the truth. So, they don't have to be concerned."

Under the draft law, ministers are given powers to order corrections or removals of online falsehoods, and also ask for sites spreading such falsehoods to be blocked, if they harm the public interest.

These decisions can be challenged in court, which will be the final arbiter, if applications to the ministers to vary or cancel the orders are rejected.

Those found guilty of spreading fake news with the malicious intent to harm public interest could face jail terms of up to 10 years.

To determine such intent, Senior Minister of State for Law Edwin Tong said the police will look at objective facts, circumstances and context. If necessary, they will refer the case to the Attorney-General's Chambers, which will decide whether or not to prosecute.

If the case goes to court, the court will then have to decide "beyond any reasonable doubt whether there was a case to be made for this person to have published it with knowledge of falsity, and intention to undermine public interest", said Mr Tong, who is also Senior Minister of State for Health.



At an event organised by the Association of Muslim Lawyers and social enterprise Wise SG yesterday, Singapore Management University law don Eugene Tan asked during a small group session involving Mr Shanmugam as well as 20 lawyers and academics whether the Government could include illustrations relating to the definition of a falsehood.

He said doing so would help to clarify the intention of the Bill.

"We certainly can consider inserting some illustrations into the legislation," replied Mr Shanmugam.

The event, to discuss hate speech and deliberate online falsehoods, included a larger dialogue, attended by about 160 academics, businessmen, students and religious leaders.

Institute of Policy Studies senior research fellow Carol Soon asked Mr Shanmugam how the Government would handle sensitive information involving national security in order to correct a falsehood.

He acknowledged that in such circumstances, a simple statement saying that an article in question contains a falsehood "is not going to cut much ice".

If the ministry involved decides to respond, it will have to make a "judgment call" on how much information to put out, he said.

"It must be clear enough so that when people read it, they will say this is obviously true," he said. "If you don't set out enough, then you probably revalidate the original falsehood."



CHALLENGING DECISIONS WILL BE FAST, RELATIVELY INEXPENSIVE: MINISTER

It will be "fast and relatively inexpensive" to challenge decisions taken by the Government to act against online falsehoods under a proposed law, Law and Home Affairs Minister K. Shanmugam said yesterday.

He said the Government is trying to reduce the cost of such appeals "very substantially" and allow individuals to act without employing a lawyer.

"Of course, people can employ lawyers," Mr Shanmugam said in response to a question asked at an event organised by the Association of Muslim Lawyers and social enterprise Wise SG.

"But we want to make the process such that you fill in a form that sets out your position, and we want to try and make it fast and relatively inexpensive."

Tabled in Parliament on April 1, the proposed Protection from Online Falsehoods and Manipulation Act allows for people who disagree with a government decision taken to correct or remove a falsehood to appeal to the courts.

The appeal can be made after applications to the ministers to vary or cancel the orders are rejected. But some have pointed out that the legal route could be a costly means of seeking redress.

On Sunday, Deputy Speaker of Parliament Charles Chong called on the Government to make the appeals process "less onerous".

This would give people the assurance that there are adequate avenues of redress when there is disagreement with the Government's decision, said Mr Chong, who chaired the Select Committee on Deliberate Online Falsehoods last year.

Mr Shanmugam was also asked at the event yesterday if it would be more practical to set up an independent committee to review online falsehoods rather than having government ministers do the job.

He said that unlike ministers, such a committee would not be politically accountable. "If a minister makes a decision, he can be accountable in Parliament," said Mr Shanmugam. "He can be brought to court and he has to justify this decision."

He added that left unchecked, online falsehoods can have serious consequences in the real world. "Ultimately, the Government is responsible. You have got to correct these things and then stand or fall by your decision."

Responding to queries on the minister's proposal to simplify the appeal process, a spokesman for Singapore Press Holdings said last night in a statement: "SPH welcomes the proposal to simplify the process for appeals on decisions calling for corrections or deletions on fake news.

"In its representations to the Select Committee, SPH had proposed, among other things, that it would be preferable for a neutral body to be tasked with adjudicating on whether content was true or otherwise.

"The proposed legislation calls for such decisions on online falsehoods to be made by domain ministers, so that these could be taken with speed to safeguard the public interest.

"SPH accepts that, and also welcomes the move to make appeals against such decisions easier for the public, as this will go a long way towards addressing concerns that have been voiced in some quarters."





Proposed law against fake news: The burning questions
That legislation is needed to tackle the scourge of online falsehoods is widely accepted. But how Singapore's proposed law would do so has come under the spotlight since the Protection from Online Falsehoods and Manipulation Bill was tabled in Parliament on April 1. The Straits Times' Tham Yuen-C, Linette Lai and Lim Min Zhang take up the key questions raised over the draft legislation.
The Straits Times, 10 Apr 2019

1 WILL IT CURTAIL FREEDOM OF EXPRESSION?

Powers given to ministers under the Bill - to decide what is a falsehood that could harm public interest and to order actions - may lead to censorship of unwelcome views or create a chilling effect on freedom of expression, some have argued.

But the Ministry of Law (MinLaw) said yesterday that the Bill applies only to false statements of fact, and will not cover opinions, satire or parody, or criticisms against the Government, no matter how severe.

It said there is a clear distinction between fact and opinion, which is set out in law. The Bill uses the following definition of "fact": "A statement which a reasonable person seeing, hearing or otherwise perceiving it would consider to be a representation of fact."

Lawyer Chia Yong Yong, who was on the Select Committee on Deliberate Online Falsehoods last year, told The Straits Times that the scope of the draft law is confined to the communication of false statements of fact which are against public interest.

"In the first place, there is no fundamental liberty to tell or spread lies, and freedom of expression is constitutionally circumscribed by elements of public interest," noted the former Nominated MP.


2 WHY LET MINISTERS DECIDE ON THE FALSEHOODS?

Another area of concern among some was why Singapore has decided on the approach of allowing ministers to decide on falsehoods first, instead of an independent regulator or senior civil servants.

MinLaw said the model under the Bill - in which the minister makes the decision at first instance, and is then accountable in court, to Parliament, and to the electorate - strikes the best balance between the need to act decisively and have accountability.

It described the model as the most cost-effective, compared with the Government having to make an application in court. "That will be more costly because everyone will have to be brought to court, even when the person knows it is false and does not wish to challenge. It will certainly also not be effective because by the time the matter goes to court, the falsehoods will have gone viral and set in stone," it added.

But under this model, individuals can decide if they wish to challenge and will do so only when what they had stated is true. "And if they are right, the Government will have to pay costs to them," said MinLaw.

Other possible options include having senior civil servants or an independent body decide on what are falsehoods that need to be countered.

Having an independent panel was considered, said MinLaw, but this model was found wanting.

Issues that arise include how this independent body could be held accountable for its decisions, and how its members would be appointed and remunerated. And if their decisions can be appealed against and they have to defend themselves in court, what resources they will have to do so, and who will fund the litigation.

"The body has the power, but does not have the responsibility. If it makes a wrong decision, the consequences fall on society, which the Government then has to deal with. Some of these consequences - which have been seen in other countries, including developed ones - are not minor; they can involve protests on the streets, public order concerns, etc."

On why not permanent secretaries, who are senior civil servants, MinLaw said that ministers, as elected officials, are responsible for running the Government.

"It is their duty to keep Singapore safe and deal with public policy issues. They are accountable in Parliament and to the public for their decisions," it added.


3 DOES IT GIVE TOO MUCH POWER TO MINISTERS?

The Asia Internet Coalition, an industry group representing Internet and technology companies such as Facebook and Google, had expressed concern on April 1 that the proposed legislation would give the Singapore Government "full discretion" over what is considered true or false.

MinLaw said that under the Bill, the minister who is familiar with the domain in question will make the decision on what directives should be taken. The same minister will also be accountable for this decision if challenged, said MinLaw.

On why not have the power given to only one minister, MinLaw said that this means that minister has to make the call on matters of fact relating to a whole range of domains, and assess whether that falsehood has an impact on public interest. "If challenged in court, the competence of the minister to make that judgment will be aggressively challenged," it said.


4 HOW WILL THE LAW APPLY DURING ELECTIONS WHEN FALSEHOODS SURFACE AGAINST CANDIDATES?

An alternative authority appointed under the Bill will exercise the minister's powers during election periods. "The intent is to appoint senior civil servants such as the permanent secretaries of the various ministries," said MinLaw.

If a false statement of fact about a political office holder relating to their personal affairs is published at any time, including during elections, the public interest condition is not likely to be fulfilled, it said.

"No action can be taken under the Protection from Online Falsehoods and Manipulation Bill unless public interest is triggered; the remedy for the affected individual lies under the Protection from Harassment Act."


5 HOW DOES THE LAW SAFEGUARD AGAINST ABUSE BY A ROGUE GOVERNMENT?

The powers in the legislation apply only to false statements of fact, so the abuse can happen only when the Government does not respect the notion of there being objective facts, said MinLaw. In such cases, court challenge is available.

In addition, if a take-down directive is regularly used, people will see anyway that there is an abuse, said MinLaw. "The government of the day will then have to take the flak for it," it said.










Proposed law on falsehoods has ‘clear oversight mechanism’ to prevent abuse by Government, says Shanmugam
In an exclusive interview, the Law and Home Affairs Minister looks to address concerns that have been raised over the recently tabled Protection from Online Falsehoods and Manipulation Bill.
By Jaime Ho and Kevin Kwang, Channel NewsAsia, 13 Apr 2019

There is a “clear oversight mechanism” in place in the Protection from Online Falsehoods and Manipulation Bill to prevent possible abuse of power by the Singapore Government, Law Minister K Shanmugam told CNA in an exclusive interview during which he looked to address concerns over the legislation.

Mr Shanmugam said that checks are in place in the proposed law, as he dealt with arguments that it was too broad and provided for future abuse by future governments. For instance, if there was a declaration that something is false and needed clarification, the courts would have oversight.



In response to questions on whether the legislation provided the Singapore Government with too much power, Mr Shanmugam said that such accusations had also been made on previous pieces of legislation.

“We’ve always said: ‘OK what works for us, we’ve put it in place and we exercise those powers honestly.’ And we allow ourselves to be judged and, periodically, the people judge us at the elections and they look at the results of what we have done. The pluses, minuses, bottomline, how does it work,” the minister said.

“So that’s the way a transparent government has got to work,” he added.



The following is an edited transcript of the interview between Mr Shanmugam and CNA Digital’s chief editor Jaime Ho.

CNA: It’s quite clear that most people understand the need for all governments to address online falsehoods, especially deliberate online falsehoods. The question is obviously how. First off, why have you chosen the ministers to be the first point of decision for various things on what constitutes a falsehood and then deciding on appropriate action?

Minister Shanmugam: When there is a falsehood which affects public interest, it can spread very fast, very quickly.

I can give you actual incidents. In Myanmar, an allegation that two Muslim men raped a Buddhist woman spread within 24 hours. Within that time period, you have people getting killed, lots of rioters on the streets, buildings getting damaged, huge amount of public disorder.

If you turn to the financial markets, an actual example of a falsehood is that the founder of a bitcoin company had died; it’s put out deliberately by somebody, I think, seeking profit. Within a period of four to five hours, billions of dollars were wiped out from the value. Lots of innocent investors lose money.

Likewise in Indonesia, a false allegation that a Chinese woman had criticised and said nasty things about a mosque. Within 24 to 36 hours, buildings were damaged, 12 Buddhist temples were vandalised, lots of public disorder, a real fear for people’s lives. These are real world consequences.

It doesn’t just happen in Asia; Germany too, and in many parts of Europe. Falsehoods spread like wildfire, they spread very quickly. The consequences have to be dealt by governments. So you need to move quickly.

Therefore, ministers are proposed to be given the power. Is it false? And if it’s false, you move in immediately to say: Clarify this. This is not true, it’s false. But we are only talking about facts, not opinion, not satire, not parody, not comments. Direct allegations - did a rape take place? Was this said or was it not said about a mosque by this person. Direct factual allegations which have impact on the public. Ministers call that and you put out a clarification, together with the original article, except that in some cases the original article may have to be taken down.

And if the person who is required to carry a clarification or take-down is not happy, he appeals to court.



CNA: How do you guard against, or at least mitigate, the different ministers having different approaches and thresholds to decide on what needs to be taken action on and, maybe, the different types of action?

Minister: I give you an example from Singapore. I think many people will remember somebody put up a false photo - Punggol HDB roof collapsed.

Do you know how many young families are living there? People will be concerned. (That’s why) SCDF, police and other assets rushed on to the scene. If we have the power to immediately clarify that this is false, and require the person and the (online) platforms to push out a notice to everybody: “Those of you who have read this article, please note that government has clarified that there is no roof collapse.” Would it not be better?

If there is an allegation like: “If you take this vaccine, your child is going to become autistic or is going to get measles”, you’d want the Ministry of Health to be able to put out a clarification and get it carried on the platforms that are carrying the untruth. So that’s what this is about.

The different ministries will have that expertise in different areas, and we’re talking about what facts, clear facts.

That will then have to be put through a Competent Authority which will serve the notification. And we have said quite frequently what will be required, so that tech platforms can carry the clarifications and push it out to the people who have received notice of the (falsehoods).

For most people, there is no impact. They just receive the notifications.

CNA: You mentioned the Competent Authority. Since you raised the issue of the HDB block (falsehood), is there (an) iterative process between authorities and the minister before a decision is made? It may have to be done fast. It may have to be done quickly, but is there that balance as well that can be found?

Minister: Truth is not malleable - either something is true or it is not true. But the Competent Authority could obviously offer its views to the minister on what needs to be done, follow-up consequences. But the decision, ultimately, will have to be that of the minister’s.

CNA: Another issue that has caught the imagination of the critics is the issue about exemptions. There is a clause in the legislation that says the minister may exempt any person or class of persons from any provision of this Act. Who does the law have in mind here? Obviously when people see exemptions, especially for something as serious as this, they’re saying: “What is going on?”

Minister: It’s because most people, understandably, don’t realise that this is a fairly common provision in many pieces of legislation.

Off-hand, I can tell you, 15, 20 pieces of legislation, there must be more. Let me give you a few examples: Take the Executive Condominium Housing Scheme Act, or the Traditional Chinese Medicine Practitioners Act, Active Mobility Act, Casino Control Act, Telecommunications Act, Postal Services Act, the Remote Gambling Act, Smoking (Prohibition in Certain Places) Act, Dangerous Fireworks Act - a broad variety of legislation has got similar provision.

And the reason is simple. Say there is a request for a tech platform to carry a clarification or push out clarifications and it’s not technically possible to do some part of it. Then the minister will have to consider whether it is true, whether it is not possible. And if so, he could consider giving exemptions. That’s all that this is about.

CNA: The good thing is that you raised those examples used in different legislation as people have come to trust that (the exemption) will not be misused there. The question, then, is there some suspicion it could be misused with this proposed law. If there is some reassurance that it will not be misused, then that’s obviously helpful.

Minister: You know, any government that misuses its powers will face the consequences.

In terms of having this provision in, this legislation is no different from a variety of other legislation.

CNA: Another question about this particular portion that deals with the minister’s action is that before someone can appeal, or at least bring his case to the courts, he has to first send it to the minister, and the minister himself has to judge that first appeal to the …

Minister: Yes, that’s again very normal.

CNA: But can you explain that, and is there any rule to mandate at least some degree of speed and efficiency?

Minister: That will be done. It’s just that it’s not normal to set these things out in the primary legislation. I will certainly deal with it during the second reading in Parliament and set it out in subsidiary legislation. The whole approach will be to make it speedy, efficient, quick and as inexpensive as possible.

CNA: During the Select Committee process from last year, there were some who suggested for a separate, independent body, perhaps even accountable to Parliament, to do the fact-checking. Can you explain the thinking behind why this wasn’t taken up in the end?

Minister: We considered it very carefully. A number of reasons as I said earlier.

(One is that) you need to move immediately, sometimes it’s within a matter of minutes, sometimes within a matter of hours. And the people best placed to make those decisions are those who have to deal with the ground situation. That’s usually the government, the executive (branch).

Second, the executive - the ministers, the government - are accountable in Parliament, have to answer questions in Parliament. And also accountable to the courts, where if a person who receives a notice to clarify something, and he is not happy, he doesn’t want to carry the clarification, he may be a great believer in free speech. But he doesn’t want to carry the other side. He can go to court and the courts will then decide whether the minister was right or wrong in saying that something was not true.

We are dealing with a very basic thing: Is something true (or is) something not true. Is the colour of this table white or is it black? It’s factual. We’re not dealing with opinions here. Opinions, people can have. We are dealing with facts.

The third point is, ultimately, the government is accountable to the electorate itself. So it stands or falls by its judgments.

CNA: One of the, I suppose, attractive things about an independent (body), or however independent it can be …

Minister: Who appoints the body.

CNA: It’s one thing to appoint the body. Also, it at least minimises the politicisation of the final decision as well. Frankly speaking, if an appointed minister makes that decision, there’s always some degree of political sensitivity and politicisation of the decision made. The benefit in having the fact-checking body is it will at least be seen as slightly more independent.

Minister: I think the answer lies in coming back to actual concrete examples.

Let’s look at the Punggol example: Roof of a HDB block has collapsed, what is political about it? It’s either the roof has collapsed or it hasn’t collapsed. The Myanmar example: Either the two Muslim men raped a Buddhist woman, or they didn’t. These are facts.

I don’t think we need to go into politicisation. And the consequences will have to be faced by the government acting in the best interest of its people. If there are riots, if there are deep divisions or if there is a serious public inconvenience in that people actually thinking that a fire that has broken out, or their building has collapsed, stuff like that, then it falls on the Government to deal with it.

The Government is best placed. What we are talking about is setting out a clarification, sometimes a take-down. And I don’t see why this needs to be politicised. This is an exercise of Government power, just like the exercise of so many other Government powers. Powers of arrest, powers of detention, powers of investigation, powers to run the economy, spend billions of dollars … (and) put out the truth.

CNA: Since you raised the example of the Punggol incident, honestly, we the media will also feel that that is our role as well. That’s precisely something which the media could have, and some of us probably did, go out to verify that …

Minister: So there is nothing wrong. But is there anything wrong with the Government coming in with a further clarification? It helps. There is no reason why that should …

CNA: We did seek that clarification, and the question then is whether or not in certain cases, we may not need the legislative (tools) …

Minister: I have asked in every session that I attended, including with journalists and others, and there are people who do these things day to day, some day to day for a living. (I asked them) to give me one example of a fact versus falsehood that they think doesn’t need to be corrected in this context, and I said I will amend the legislation.

Not one person has pointed out. Each of the examples I give from around the world and in Singapore, they say: “Oh but that… We agree that power needs to be exercised.”

That is the point, the power needs to be exercised.

CNA: Another issue which I think needs some addressing is the role of the courts. We sort of touched upon that earlier. As you’ve said since Apr 1, the court will be the final arbiter …

Minister: That’s what the Bill provides.

CNA: … and you’ve also said in recent days that you must and will prescribe timelines and even costs to keep the process as efficient as possible. Would you, therefore, admit that there was some understandable concerns from people when they saw that the appeals process to go to the courts will be expensive, will take a long time?

Minister: I can understand people’s concern. But in terms of our thinking, that has always been our thinking.

A lot of people don’t realise, but in addition to this Bill, there is another Bill to amend the Protection from Harassment Act (POHA). That gives individuals broadly similar powers. A lot of people don’t realise (but) people get harassed, people get lies said about them. And they are given powers now to go to court, get an application, get the falsehoods taken down or corrected.

Because why should their individual reputation be tarnished? So individuals are now going to be empowered under the Protection from Harassment Act. And I said some months ago, that it is my intention to make it as inexpensive as possible, streamline the process, make it efficient, make it fast, make it speedy. In fact, set up specialised courts that will deal with it.

CNA: The second reading (of the Bill) will clarify this?

Minister: Wait, so I had said that about POHA. And you don’t set those things out in the legislation. It was precisely my intention, whatever I said a few months ago, for POHA - and POHA and POFMA are being put in (for deliberation) at the same time – that similar sort of process and prescription will be put in place for the Protection from Online Falsehoods and Manipulation Act.

So it’s not something that we haven’t thought about. I can understand people being concerned, but we have already taken care of that in terms of our thinking. And I’ll make it clear during the second reading.

CNA: Another issue that I think needs to be clarified is that within the legislation that you’ve put on the table, the judges’ ability to act on the grounds of which they can decide, can be circumscribed into two areas. One is to decide whether it is true or if it is false, and also whether or not it’s technically feasible. Some have said why shouldn’t the judges be in a position to also decide whether a take-down is disproportionate or maybe a correction is needed …

Minister: They can decide, it follows established law. Whether it’s a true or false, it’s a straightforward question and the judges decide that. Technical feasibility is also a question that they decide.

When it comes to what’s in public interest and what is the right remedy, those are - based on previous case law, based on established precedent - matters for the executive. The courts intervene in certain circumstances and they will set out in law how they will intervene, in what circumstances they will intervene; that’s not being disturbed by this legislation.

There may be different standards in the way of how they will intervene, or the standards that they apply to intervene. As I have said, that’s set out in law. This legislation doesn’t change the law.



CNA: If we can now take a step back and look at it from a big picture perspective. For the ordinary citizen who looks at this legislation, some may understand it more, some may understand it less, and then they will hear international criticisms, they will see criticisms from other people. Obviously the main concern they will have is free speech – how does it affect their own ability to speak, to criticise, to critique, to comment. That’s one.

The second point is then, how does it affect their access to what they see as free speech. Will it constrain their access to contrarian views, different views? There is some groundswell of concern there. Is that something that you can respond to?

Minister: First thing, in all the different meetings that I, my colleagues, my officials have had and in the various soundings that we have taken, reaching out to lots of people, I think, by and large, people understand.

I would say that there are concerns but that’s restricted to a smaller group. But that’s not to minimise their concerns but we get the sense of what people are concerned about. So for the people who are engaging us, those who have concerns, my message has been very simple and I’ve said it publicly: “Ninety-nine per cent of the people don’t have to worry about what they do 99 per cent of the time.”

What do I mean? Most of us receive messages, we share them, we forward them, people like them, none of that is an issue. And if it turns out to be false, the primary approach is to ask the tech platforms to put up a clarification that’s pushed to everyone.

So for most of us, the day after this Bill becomes law, assuming Parliament passes it, life carries on as per normal.

The people who need to be concerned are the people who profit from and peddle in falsehoods. They put out (information) knowing that it’s false and they know that they are going to profit from it. They are doing it deliberately, they are setting it out, there is some element of malice. They need to worry.

But as I said, most people don’t fall into that category. They may be passing on falsehoods, but they are not the creators of it; they don’t know that it is false, they are just passing it on. Nothing changes for them. They will receive, and I’m sure many of them will be happy to receive, a notice saying that actually if you want to know the truth, you can go to such a place.

CNA: If I may close off with another even bigger picture and longer-term question: The way that you set out the legislation, obviously some people criticise it for being way too broad and for providing the Government with too much power.

And some may argue that, while the current government has explained the implementation of the law, there is nothing to prevent a future government from abusing the provisions within the legislation. We’ve seen examples of this everywhere; it’s not just individuals who proffer falsehoods. Certain governments, if I may say so, also quite liberally use falsehoods ...

Minister: And those governments will face the consequences at the elections.

CNA: Is that something that you think can be looked at within the legislation? That there are in-built checks to preclude such abuses?

Minister: First of all, there are checks. If there is a declaration that something is false and asking for clarification, the courts have oversight of it. So there is a clear oversight mechanism (and) checks.

Second, you are talking about future governments, whether they will abuse. The Singapore Government, in terms of other legislation, has also been accused of having too much power. We’ve always said: “OK what works for us, we’ve put it in place and we exercise those powers honestly.” And we allow ourselves to be judged and, periodically, the people judge us at the elections and they look at the results of what we have done. The pluses, minuses, bottom line, how does it work. So that’s the way a transparent government has got to work. I cannot vouch for how a future government will act.

But there is a serious problem - falsehoods are the new currency that a lot of people trade in. It has got serious consequences for people, in terms of blood, in terms of money, in terms of lives, and it is wrong for the Singapore Government to keep quiet.

You see legislation in Germany; you see Australia pass its legislation in two days; Britain has proposed very sweeping changes, not yet into legislation. And we had extensive hearings last year, when we heard a lot of evidence. It’s a serious problem, everyone accepts that it’s a problem and we’ve got to do something about it.

CNA: We certainly hope to hear a little bit more about it when the Bill comes for a second reading in Parliament. Thank you so much for giving us your time.





Related
Select Committee on Deliberate Online Falsehoods - Causes, Consequences and Countermeasures

Report of the Select Committee on Deliberate Online Falsehood -20 Sep 2018

Select Committee public hearings:
- 14 - 16 March 2018
- 22 - 23 March 2018
- 27 - 29 March 2018

Select Committee on fake news: 22 recommendations unveiled to combat online falsehoods in Singapore -20 Sep 2018

Facebook: No policy against fake news; Facebook allows itself to spread lies by not removing States Times Review post

Institute of Policy Studies report on Religion in Singapore -28 Mar 2019

New Bill to Protect Society from Online Falsehoods and Malicious Actors -1 Apr 2019

Hate speech: Singapore is prepared to err on the side of caution to preserve racial harmony, says Law and Home Affairs Minister K. Shanmugam

Response to media queries on Human Rights Watch’s statement on the Protection from Online Falsehoods and Manipulation Bill -3 Apr 2019

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