Nominated MPs propose four amendments to fake news Bill

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 yesterday, 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, it does not contain such assurances that limit how its powers can be used, and 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 representatives from online media, civil society activists, lawyers and academics.

Since it was introduced 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 appeals to the ministers are rejected.

Since it was introduced 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 appeals to the ministers 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 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 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," 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."

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 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.

Without a better definition of public confidence in the Bill, such concerns are best handled with reference to key principles they proposed, they added.

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

SEE OPINION

A version of this article appeared in the print edition of The Straits Times on May 01, 2019, with the headline 'Nominated MPs propose four amendments to fake news Bill'. Print Edition | Subscribe