Legislation essential to curbing spread of fake news: PM Lee Hsien Loong

Prime Minister Lee Hsien Loong at the 29th Inter-Pacific Bar Association conference on April 25, 2019.
Prime Minister Lee Hsien Loong at the 29th Inter-Pacific Bar Association conference on April 25, 2019. ST PHOTO: JASON QUAH

He also stresses importance of upholding the rule of law within the country and externally

Legislation is an essential part of the solution to the spread of fake news by malevolent actors who set out to manipulate opinions and influence elections, said Prime Minister Lee Hsien Loong yesterday.

To this end, Singapore's Protection from Online Falsehoods and Manipulation Bill will hold online platforms accountable and empower the Government to issue correction orders when false statements of fact are published, he added.

Take-down orders will be issued in serious cases, he said to participants of the Inter-Pacific Bar Association Meeting and Conference held at Raffles City Convention Centre.

PM Lee cited the draft law on online falsehoods as an example of how the country has updated its laws to address broader trends affecting many countries, in this case the spread of fake news due to the proliferation of technology and social media. The Bill was introduced in Parliament on April 1.

The proposed law has sparked concerns that it could stifle free speech and lead to self-censorship.

A group of academics has called for assurances that the proposed legislation will not affect academic work to be written into the Bill, while 27 arts and civil society groups issued a statement yesterday voicing various concerns about the law.

The House will debate the Bill when Parliament sits on May 6.

 
 
 
 

In his 15-minute speech, PM Lee also listed two other broad trends that have required a rethinking of laws around the world.

One is the need to craft laws to prevent terrorism and radical incitement based on the intent to do harm, rather than after a crime has been committed. The other is the need to consider how taxes should apply to online transactions, given the rapid growth of e-commerce.

In dealing with these issues, he said there will not be universal solutions that work for all countries, but it is important to understand one another's points of view to work out common rules where possible to allow for meaningful engagement.

The Prime Minister also emphasised the importance of upholding the rule of law, saying Singapore is conscious of the need to nurture it both internally and externally.

No matter the provenance of a country's legal system, a common thread that runs through almost every modern society is a system of rule of law premised on society being governed by impartial and objective laws which are clear, passed following due process, and published for all to see, he said.

The laws also have to be enforced fairly, free of fear and favour.

Laws must also be administered by impartial courts that are independent of the executive, and deliver judgments that are reasoned and open to criticism, he added.

"These are all necessary conditions for people to feel that they are treated equally before the law, and that no one is above or immune from the law," said PM Lee.

Over the years, Singapore has built upon the English common law system inherited from the days of colonial rule to develop a legal system that fits its unique circumstances, he said.

He noted that Singapore is a strong proponent of international law, which is vital to a stable and constructive international order.

"We take very seriously all our international treaty obligations, and will enter into an agreement only when we fully intend to honour it. Similarly, we expect others to honour fully agreements they sign with us," he said.

 
 
 

Singapore supports dispute resolution through institutions such as the International Court of Justice, he said, adding that the country has referred several issues for adjudication, and always respected and abided by the outcomes "even when they are not in our favour".

PM Lee also pointed to how Singapore has contributed to the development of rule of law internationally, most recently during negotiations on the United Nations Convention on International Settlement Agreements Resulting from Mediation.

This convention was adopted by the UN General Assembly last December, and named the Singapore Convention on Mediation. Singapore will host the signing ceremony for the convention on Aug 7.

A version of this article appeared in the print edition of The Straits Times on April 26, 2019, with the headline 'PM: Legislation essential to curbing spread of fake news'. Print Edition | Subscribe