The Law Ministry said yesterday that the Workers' Party (WP) had misrepresented the Government's position on a law that provides protection against harassment and false statements, after the opposition party suggested that the Government would be changing the law to protect itself from harassment.
In a sharp response, the ministry said: "The Government has never said that it needed protection from harassment. Nor does the Government intend to amend POHA (Protection from Harassment Act) to protect itself from harassment."
The ministry added: "The Government needs to take steps to protect the public and Singapore's institutions from the very real dangers posed by the spread of false information. The Government will not shy away from this, whatever may be said wrongly about its intentions and objectives."
The exchange comes on the back of a recent split decision by the Court of Appeal, which ruled 2-1 that government agencies cannot invoke POHA.
The decision arose in a case in which the Attorney-General had sought a court order under POHA against a doctor and The Online Citizen (TOC) website for spreading allegations about the Ministry of Defence. The order asked that the allegations cannot be published without a note that they were false.
Responding to the court's decision, the Ministry of Law said last Monday: "The Government will study the judgment, and consider what further steps it should take to correct the deliberate spreading of falsehoods."
Yesterday, the WP said it was concerned that this meant the Government would be changing the law, adding that this "risks turning the POHA into the latest in the many tools that the Government can use against Singaporeans who publicly express different views from the Government on its policies and actions".
The WP also cited a 1988 case to bolster its point, saying that "the Government at the time disagreed with the court's ruling and by end-January 1989, had passed retrospective legislation" to change the law. The court had held in the case, Chng Suan Tze v Minister for Home Affairs, that it had a right to review the Government's discretion in Internal Security Act cases.
The WP added that should the Government react to the court's judgment by seeking to amend POHA, the party will "vigorously oppose such amendments".
But the Law Ministry said the WP's statement was "misconceived and misrepresents the issues and the Government's aims".
It said POHA has to do with harassment and false statements. In the recent case, the Government had sought to invoke the legal remedies against false statements, and the apex court had agreed that falsehoods about the Government had indeed been published by TOC and the doctor, said the ministry.
It noted that the court decision on the case was split, with the majority believing that POHA, as currently drafted, did not give the Government the power to require publication of true facts, and the Chief Justice disagreeing with the opinion."This case thus had nothing to do with harassment. It was about false statements," the ministry said.
"The Government strongly believes that the scourge of false information must not be allowed to take hold in Singapore, lest it weakens our democratic society and institutions," it said.
"At a time when false information can affect election results, contaminate public discussions and weaken democratic societies, it is important for the Government, as well as corporations and individuals, to be able to respond robustly to false statements that could poison public debate and mislead decision-making."
The ministry added that "everyone, including the Government" should be entitled to point out falsehoods and highlight true facts.
It said the WP should welcome this, "unless (it) sees profit in the dissemination of falsehoods".