Courts should rule on what constitutes falsehoods: Pritam

WORKERS' PARTY CHIEF PRITAM SINGH
WORKERS' PARTY CHIEF PRITAM SINGH

Having courts, rather than ministers, decide that initially would be fairer, says WP chief

The Workers' Party (WP) has objected to the proposed fake news law, arguing that the courts - not ministers - should decide initially on what constitutes falsehoods, its chief Pritam Singh said in Parliament.

Former party leader Low Thia Khiang also warned of possible abuse of powers under the proposed Protection from Online Falsehoods and Manipulation Act, and gave his reasons in Mandarin.

Their speeches prompted several back-and-forth exchanges between the opposition MPs and some People's Action Party (PAP) backbenchers and office-holders.

Speaking at the debate on the Bill yesterday, Mr Singh (Aljunied GRC) said that having the courts decide "at the very first instance" on falsehoods and take-down orders would be fairer and give the rulings greater legitimacy.

Given the way the Bill is set out, he said it is "fathomable that some statements the executive may interpret as offending are likely to exist along the misinformation and disinformation spectrum", but are not clear-cut falsehoods.

As an example, he cited Operation Spectrum - in which 22 people were arrested under the Internal Security Act in 1987 - where the decision made by the executive branch was questioned by the public and a few Cabinet ministers.

MORE NEUTRAL CHOICE

To avoid such inconsistency, wouldn't the courts represent a more neutral, transparent, accountable and uncontroversial platform to rule on such matters?

WORKERS' PARTY CHIEF PRITAM SINGH, who said it is possible that a minister can invoke the powers in the Bill, even if a colleague disagrees with his decision.

It is possible that a minister can invoke the powers in the Bill, even if a colleague disagrees with his decision, he argued.

"To avoid such inconsistency, wouldn't the courts represent a more neutral, transparent, accountable and uncontroversial platform to rule on such matters?" he said.

Mr Singh also pointed out that even if the courts can hear appeals against a minister's decision, they are "highly non-interventionist" and "cannot overrule executive decisions (that are) lawfully undertaken".

Instead, he suggested having duty judges to deal with urgent applications from the Government to take down falsehoods quickly or at short notice, or during times where there is a heightened risk of false or misleading postings online, like election periods.

He noted that under the proposed law, the executive will choose to act in some cases of falsehoods, but not in others - with questions asked in both cases on why it chose to do so.

In his speech, Mr Low (Aljunied GRC) said the underlying motivation for the Bill is to deter critics of the Government from speaking out on social media. "The aim of the Government is to protect the ruling party and achieve political monopoly," he said.

Like Mr Singh, he took issue with the Bill letting ministers decide what falsehoods are and what actions to take.

"It is like a match in which the minister is both player and referee," he said, adding: "How can we be sure that the ministers from the ruling party will not manipulate opinions and spread falsehoods to win elections?"

 
 
 
 

He also said that while people can turn to the courts to appeal against a minister's actions, the recourse is "both time-consuming and energy-sapping".

He added that the definition of falsehoods in the Bill is too wide-ranging and that the same words used by different people may be interpreted differently by the ministers.

"For example, the older generation cannot accept a non-Chinese prime minister - if these words came from the minister himself or his supporter, the minister may say this is a personal opinion.

"However, if these words came 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. He can demand that this person publish what is acceptable to the Government or he will be punished."

Mr Low said the correct way is to instil in citizens a habit of being more discerning of what they read online andof verifying that factually.

He said the new law does not serve the goals of defending democracy and protecting public interest, as claimed by the Government. "It is more like the actions of a dictatorial government that (will) resort to any means to hold on to absolute power."

PAP MPs and office-holders, including Senior Parliamentary Secretary Sun Xueling and backbencher Christopher de Souza, disagreed with the opposition MPs.

Mr Singh had quoted Senior Minister of State for Law Edwin Tong's remarks at the debate on the Protection from Harassment Act, and noted that the courts could issue protection orders swiftly.

But Mr Tong pointed out that for fake news, "it will be extremely difficult for a court to have a proper marshalling of the details and the facts and to decide on the case".

Mr Singh said that "philosophically, I have a different view as to who the appropriate decision maker is and it is my belief that we should try and see how the courts can deal with these falsehoods as quickly as possible".

Mr Tong countered: "That may be Mr Singh's philosophical position, but he was trying to quote my speech to make that point and I don't think that's accurate."


Some MPs weigh in

CHRISTOPHER DE SOUZA (HOLLAND-BUKIT TIMAH GRC)

"To rely on existing legal remedies would be far too insufficient to deal with the threat at hand. As Singapore Management University (SMU) School of Law dean Goh Yihan stated, existing laws are limited in terms of speed, scope and adaptability.

Simply put, while criminal penalties may apply to punish perpetrators, there are no legislative levers to ensure the timely correction or removal of fake news.

Many people have expressed concern that the Bill will create a chilling effect on public discussions.

That is far too broad a criticism. The corrections regime encourages free speech, by ensuring that people are exposed to more viewpoints and more facts - not less. This is in line with the 'marketplace of ideas' theory."

PRITAM SINGH (ALJUNIED GRC)

"The Workers' Party is of the view that as a matter of principle, the Courts should be the decision-makers at the very first instance on matters that pertain to deliberate online falsehoods and manipulation.

The fact that this Bill would have to regulate what some reasonable people may well interpret as an expression of free speech under Article 14 of our Constitution, must give us reason to pause and question whether the Courts are better placed to exercise judgment on this point."

LOW THIA KHIANG (ALJUNIED GRC)

"It is like during a match, the minister is both player and referee. Prime Minister Lee Hsien Loong pointed out recently that the prevalence of technology and social media has 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?"

SEAH KIAN PENG (MARINE PARADE GRC)

"I had started my speech by asking if we ask too much of the law and too little of ourselves. Even if the Protection from Online Falsehoods and Manipulation Act had been in operation today, given the way the law has been drafted, there would have been very few take-down orders. Instead, there will be additional facts for people to consider - perhaps to accept if they are convinced, perhaps to reject if they are not.

Online contestation is a vaccine - we cannot grow strong unless we are first made weak. We cannot develop unless we have freedoms, including the freedom to make mistakes and identify falsehoods for ourselves.

In the process, we must develop an online culture of what it means to be Singaporean, to be fair-minded, seeking recompense and justice; to be compassionate; dispensing mercy and second chances.

As a young nation, we must grow into the best version of ourselves as Singaporeans, not just in our real and daily lives, but in our online norms and dialogues.

We should not ask this of the law only. We should ask this of ourselves."

A version of this article appeared in the print edition of The Straits Times on May 08, 2019, with the headline 'Courts should rule on what constitutes falsehoods: Pritam'. Print Edition | Subscribe