Hard to tell fact from opinion at times, says NMP Walter Theseira

A poster warning about fake news at an MRT station in December last year. The new law gives ministers powers to order an individual to remove content that is deemed false or run a correction alongside it. It applies to statements of facts, and does n
A poster warning about fake news at an MRT station in December last year. The new law gives ministers powers to order an individual to remove content that is deemed false or run a correction alongside it. It applies to statements of facts, and does not cover criticism, opinions, satire and parody.ST PHOTO: MALCOLM MCLEOD

Walter Theseira urges caution; Law Minister says views expressed based on accurate facts not covered by Bill

Data given by the Ministry of Social and Family Development (MSF) in 2017 was cited yesterday to debate the distinction between fact and opinion.

The MSF data showed a sharp rise in people receiving ComCare aid between 2012 and 2015, and led to an online comment that this was "the worst poverty result ever officially reported in Singapore".

MSF responded that this was "not true", explaining that the growth in ComCare recipients reflects more generous social welfare policies.

Nominated MP Walter Theseira viewed this as a difference of opinion based on the same facts and not a falsehood. Speaking during the debate on the fake news legislation, he urged caution in applying its powers.

The new law gives ministers powers to order an individual to remove content that is deemed false or run a correction alongside it. It applies to statements of facts, and does not cover criticism, opinions, satire and parody.

Dr Theseira, a transport economist from the Singapore University of Social Sciences, said that while the ministry must set the record straight, differences in opinion may arise because the public may have only partial information - as in the case of the ComCare aid.

"We should not label such differences in interpretation as falsehoods, especially if the ministry has not released all the relevant information," he added.

NON-CONSTITUENCY MEMBER OF PARLIAMENT LEON PERERA

"When we bring in the risk of massive fines and lengthy jail time under Section 7 for a single offence of "having reason to believe" that one's statement is false or harmful as Pofma defines it, which includes undermining confidence in the Government, and with no threshold of significant impact on public interest specified in the law, the risk... is not just of chilling free speech but of hurling it into an industrial freezer."


MS LEE BEE WAH (NEE SOON GRC)

"Ministers' decisions could be challenged in court. And they can be voted out if they make a decision that is obviously just to suppress critical opinions. Compare that to a committee that is appointed and paid by the Government, and gets most of its facts from the Government, but cannot be voted out. Which one is more accountable?"


MR DARRYL DAVID (ANG MO KIO GRC)

"I don't doubt that our ministers and political office holders can be trusted to do what is best for the country and our community. Nevertheless, with regard to this proposed Bill, I would like to suggest a system where the minister can be advised on such matters by a small advisory council that consists of respected members from different segments of society."


MR CHEN SHOW MAO (ALJUNIED GRC)

"The rule of law is not achieved merely by a high volume of legislation. The existence of a large number of laws does not in itself effectively constrain the exercise of power. If the laws we make grant the minister great powers, to be used at his discretion, if we do not clearly calibrate in the text of a law its constraints on power, then we will not be able to say that we have successfully met our challenge: that we successfully married the rule of law with our hopes for a rule of virtue."

 

Law and Home Affairs Minister K. Shanmugam, in his speech summing up the debate, said he has not seen these cases cited by Dr Theseira that were supposedly interpretations based on facts, rather than facts themselves.

But he said that if the facts are accurate, and the views are expressed based on those facts, they would not be covered by the Bill. He added that public interest has to be established, and "it doesn't mean that each time the Government responds... automatically, the standard for public interest as set out in the Bill would have been invoked".

Non-Constituency MP Dennis Tan noted that under the Bill, a statement is false if it is false or misleading, whether wholly or in part, and whether on its own or in the context in which it appears.

He said the definition of "misleading" might be too wide.

Mr Shanmugam said having such wording reflects existing jurisprudence, and statements can be false by reason of having misled through omission.

He added that the test for distinguishing between "comment" and "fact" is an objective one, and the courts are equipped to apply the legal test and have regularly done so.

A version of this article appeared in the print edition of The Straits Times on May 09, 2019, with the headline 'Hard to tell fact from opinion at times, says NMP'. Print Edition | Subscribe