Govt will have to safeguard trust in using powers: Edwin Tong

(From left) Singapore Management University (SMU) assistant professor of sociology Michael Genkin, Senior Minister of State for Law and Health Edwin Tong, SMU associate professor of law Eugene Tan and Singapore University of Technology and Design pro
(From left) Singapore Management University (SMU) assistant professor of sociology Michael Genkin, Senior Minister of State for Law and Health Edwin Tong, SMU associate professor of law Eugene Tan and Singapore University of Technology and Design professor and head of humanities, arts and social sciences Lim Sun Sun at a forum at SMU titled Truth and Lies: Trust in Times of Information Disorder yesterday.PHOTO: SMU

It is mindful that wrong judgments on what is deemed false will hit its public standing

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."

  • SPH statement on the Bill

  • Singapore Press Holdings (SPH) welcomes the Government's draft legislation to deal decisively with the challenge of deliberate online falsehoods, as we had indicated in our submission to the Select Committee. Given the vulnerabilities that exist in society, the measures proposed will help address a clear and present danger posed by those who seek to use new media platforms to spread misinformation and falsehoods deliberately.

    We had proposed that a level playing field be established for all media players in having to correct or take down online falsehoods, and welcome the moves to do so in the draft Bill. We also note the decision to require corrections and clarifications as an option, with take-down orders being used for more egregious content.

    We had proposed in our submission an independent fact-checking body, or neutral arbiter, to decide on content which was deemed false. This was to lend credibility to the process in the eyes of the public. This issue was discussed at length during the Select Committee hearings, where we explained our position. We note that the proposed law grants this power to ministers in the interest of speed, when deliberately false information might need to be corrected with alacrity to safeguard society.

    Under the proposed law, such decisions can be challenged in court, as has been pointed out. This has nonetheless given rise to disquiet in some quarters, which we had voiced too. 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.

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."

RIGHT BALANCE

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.

SMU LAW SCHOOL DEAN GOH YIHAN

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.

A version of this article appeared in the print edition of The Straits Times on April 04, 2019, with the headline 'Govt will have to safeguard trust in using powers: Tong'. Print Edition | Subscribe