SINGAPORE - The Law Ministry said on Sunday that the Workers' Party had misrepresented the Government's position on a law that provides protection against harassment and false statements, after the opposition party suggested that the Government would be changing the law to protect itself from harassment.
In a sharp response, the ministry said: "The Government has never said that it needed protection from harassment. Nor does the Government intend to amend POHA (Protection from Harassment Act) to protect itself from harassment."
The Ministry added: "The Government needs to take steps to protect the public and Singapore's institutions from the very real dangers posed by the spread of false information. The Government will not shy away from this, whatever may be said wrongly about its intentions and objectives."
The exchange comes on the back of a recent split decision by the Court of Appeal, which ruled 2-1 that government agencies cannot invoke the Act.
In the case, the Attorney-General had sought a court order under POHA against a doctor and The Online Citizen (TOC) website for spreading allegations about the Ministry of Defence. The order asked that the allegations cannot be published without a notification that they were false.
Responding to the court's decision, the Ministry of Law said last Monday: "The Government will study the judgment, and consider what further steps it should take to correct the deliberate spreading of falsehoods."
Yesterday, the WP said this "suggests the Government is looking into taking further action on the matter".
It added that if the law were changed, it "risks turning the POHA into the latest in the many tools that the Government can use against Singaporeans who publicly express different views from the Government on its policies and actions".
The WP also cited a 1988 case to bolster its point, saying that "the Government at the time disagreed with the court's ruling and by end-January 1989, had passed retrospective legislation" to change the law. The court had held in the case, Chng Suan Tze v Minister for Home Affairs, that it had a right to check if a government agency had exercised its power correctly, including in Internal Security Act cases.
"Should the Government react to the court's judgement by seeking to amend the law to more clearly define how the POHA 'protects the Government from harassment', the Workers' Party will vigorously oppose such amendments," it added.
But the Law Ministry said the WP's statement was "misconceived and misrepresents the issues and the Government's aims."
It said POHA provides legal remedies for two distinct types of wrong: harassment and false statements.
In the recent case, the Government had sought to invoke the legal remedies against false statements, and the apex court had agreed that falsehoods about the Government had indeed been published by TOC and the doctor, said the ministry.
"But the Court was divided on whether the Government could require publication of the true facts. The majority believed that POHA, as currently drafted, did not give the Government the power to do so. On the other hand, the Chief Justice, in his judgment, said that the Act clearly allowed the Government to correct falsehoods," it said.
"This case thus had nothing to do with harassment. It was about false statements."
The ministry said that its earlier response had set out the Government's position on false information, and not harassment.
"The Government strongly believes that the scourge of false information must not be allowed to take hold in Singapore, lest it weakens our democratic society and institutions," it said. "At a time when false information can affect election results, contaminate public discussions and weaken democratic societies, it is important for the Government, as well as corporations and individuals, to be able to respond robustly to false statements that could poison public debate and mislead decision-making."
"Everyone, including the Government, should be entitled to point out falsehoods which are published, and have the true facts brought to public attention."
It added: "The Workers' Party claims to be a champion of transparency; if this were so, it should welcome the ability of the Government and others to put a stop to falsehoods. There can be no objection to this unless the Workers' Party sees profit in the dissemination of falsehoods."