NMPs suggest 4 amendments to fake news Bill, including having independent council to review Govt decisions

NMPs (from left) Irene Quay, Anthea Ong and Walter Theseira, who have proposed amendments to the Protection from Online Falsehoods and Manipulation Bill. PHOTOS: ST FILE

SINGAPORE - The proposed legislation to fight fake news should set out the key principles under which it will be applied, and require the Government to publicly explain its decisions when exercising its powers, three Nominated Members of Parliament have suggested.

An independent council should also be set up to review the Government's actions in tackling online falsehoods, and for parties making appeals against Government decisions to have an expeditious and low-cost process to do so.

These are four amendments to the Protection from Online Falsehoods and Manipulation Bill that NMPs Anthea Ong, Irene Quay and Walter Theseira have submitted to Parliament.

In a joint statement on Tuesday (April 30), the trio said they agree with the legislative intent of the Bill, and that "the speed with which online falsehoods spread and threaten public interest cannot be addressed effectively by a slow judicial process, and requires decisive executive action".

They also noted that the Government has explicitly assured the public that the Bill is not intended to stifle or chill free speech, debate, and criticism.

"However, the Bill as written does not contain such assurances that limit how the Bill's powers can be used. The Bill also contains broadly worded clauses defining what is a false statement and what constitutes public interest," they said.

In coming up with the proposed amendments, the NMPs consulted with representatives from online media, civil society activists, lawyers and academics.

Since it was tabled in Parliament on April 1, the Bill has triggered concerns among the public that it could lead to self-censorship and limit free speech.

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.

The NMPs said spelling out key principles in the legislation "codifies some of the explicit assurances" that the Government has given over the past few weeks as to how the fake news laws will be used.

The principles they proposed include the aim to target online falsehoods that are against the public interest, and not "opinions, comments, critiques, satire, parody, generalisations, or statements of experiences".

The principles also state, among other things, that well-informed, free and critical speech is necessary for a well- functioning democracy.

"So the Act should be applied carefully to avoid chilling such speech," the NMPs said.

On thesuggestion of establishing an independent council, Associate Professor Theseira said this will "institutionalise the process of monitoring falsehoods and how the Government uses powers under the bill".

The NMPs envision this body - whose members will be appointed by a Select Committee of Parliament - to be given the powers to issue public reports and recommendations.

Ms Quay said the cases collated from the annual report can serve as case studies for media literacy education and ensure good governance.

"This will help to build trust in our system and to establish consistency across ministries to refine policy-making processes. As the first country in the world to enact such a bill with broad scope to cover fake news, a steep learning curve is to be expected," said Ms Quay, president of the Pharmaceutical Society of Singapore.

On the proposed amendment that ministers should publicly justify their actions when using the law, Ms Ong said: "We should have clear explanation why the direction is taken, including the evidence setting forth the true facts or evidence demonstrating falsehoods, which part of public interest is being compromised in the falsehood, and the reasons why the action taken is suitable."

With the four amendments in place, Prof Theseira said that when action is taken against a party using the fake news laws, he can appeal the decision through a speedy and low-cost process.

Because the Government is required to publicly justify its actions, the affected party "knows exactly why the direction was issued, why the Government believes their facts to be false, and what the public interest reason is," said Prof Theseira, an economist with the Singapore University of Social Sciences.

Should the party be unsuccessful in his appeal to the High Court, the case could be referred to a judicial review, and the court can then consider whether the principles were upheld in the Government's decision to use the fake news law, he added.

"The Court can also consider whether the stated reasons for the Government acting - required by our amendments - are consistent with the principles," said Prof Theseira.

In their statement, the NMPs also explained why they did not suggest amending certain definitions in the draft law, such as a clause which specifies public confidence in the Government as part of the public interest.

They noted that this clause has been criticised, as it grants the Government broad discretion to exercise powers under the proposed law.

However, an amendment to remove this section entirely would "remove a graduated tool for addressing online falsehoods that undermine confidence".

"Without this tool, we believe the Executive may have to use provisions in other laws that may be more draconian, or, rely on conventional media methods, which may not be effective," they said, adding that without a better definition of public confidence in the Bill, such concerns are best handled with reference to key principles they proposed.

They also chose not to propose changes to what constitutes a statement of fact, which has been criticised by some as being too vague or difficult for a layperson to understand.

The NMPs said that such a definition would have to provide a clear interpretation to both the Court, and to the ministries, in exercising the powers of the law.

"This is an important issue that must be dealt with by the appropriate experts in jurisprudence," they note. Without substantial expert legal research, the best way to address this would be through the proposed principles, they added.

The NMPs' amendments are slated to be debated during the Bill's second reading in Parliament next week.

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