Rights to free speech not hit by use of fake news law: Ministries

Progress Singapore Party member Brad Bowyer had implied in a Nov 13 post that the Government controls Temasek's and GIC's commercial decisions, which is false, the Government said on its fact-checking website Factually. PHOTO: GOV.SG

SINGAPORE - The recent use of Singapore's fake news law to correct a Facebook post by Progress Singapore Party (PSP) member Brad Bowyer does not affect his rights to free speech, said the Ministry of Law and Ministry of Communications and Information on Wednesday (Dec 11).

In a joint statement on Facebook, both ministries pointed out that Mr Bowyer's original post remains on Facebook and is available for anyone to read.

After he was required to put up a correction alongside his original post, he has also gone on to issue repeated clarifications, said the ministries.

They added: "Requiring a factual statement to be posted in order to correct a false statement does not curtail anyone's free speech."

MCI and MinLaw were responding to PSP's criticism of the Protection from Online Falsehoods and Manipulation Act (Pofma), which the opposition party said has fallen short of the values of transparency, independence and accountability.

The law was invoked for the first time on Nov 25 against Mr Bowyer.

The PSP member, who was a Briton but is now a Singapore citizen, was issued a correction direction under Pofma for a Facebook post about investments by GIC, Temasek and other government-linked companies.

The Ministry of Finance had said Mr Bowyer's post contained false statements and he was required to put up a note on his post as well as link to the correct facts on the Government's fact-checking site Factually. He complied on the same day.

The PSP, responding to the incident for the first time on Tuesday, said on its website that a minister has the power to declare something as a falsehood without any "justification, criteria or standards".

"This does not measure up to the standards of transparency and accountability. And where the news involves the Government, it also fails the standard of independence," the party added.

Rebutting it, MCI and MinLaw said the law explicitly requires ministers to state why the specified statements are false, and that there are legal precedents on how falsehoods should be determined.

"When Pofma was used recently, the reasons why the statements were false were explained clearly. Significantly, PSP and Mr Brad Bowyer do not deny that his post contained falsehoods," the ministries noted.

To say that Pofma does not impose any criteria or standards on ministers for its use is also untrue, they added, as the law clearly states it can only be used when clear criteria are met.

Under the law, a minister can issue a correction or take-down order under Pofma only if there is a false statement of fact and it affects the public interest.

The ministries added that those who are aggrieved by a minister's decision can also challenge it in court within days and at minimal cost.

"This sets a high standard of accountability," they said.

In its statement, PSP had also said that while it agrees the Government needs to be able to act swiftly to prevent fake news from going viral, it is the courts that should be deciding what is false and what penalties to impose.

"However, to declare any news as falsehood and to impose any penalties thereof, PSP is of the view that it should be done by the Courts of Singapore for independence. The Courts would also have an established system and precedents of determining falsehood from its handling of cases like fraud, thereby ensuring transparency and accountability," the party said.

To this, MCI and MinLaw said that it is untrue that ministers can impose any penalties they wish.

What ministers can do is give directions, for example, requiring a correction to be posted.

But if the direction is not complied with, only the courts can impose penalties after due process is followed and in accordance with established legal principles, the ministries said.

The ministries also took issue with a picture in the PSP post which depicted people's mouths being taped.

Explaining that Mr Bowyer's post remains online along with a link to the Government's correction of it, the ministries said: "Readers can make up their own minds as to what is the truth.

"How has Mr Bowyer's mouth been taped? His original post remains available for anyone to read. His rights to free speech remain unaffected."

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