Why list of public interest grounds is non-exhaustive

There are "very practical" reasons for keeping the list of public interest grounds in the proposed fake news law non-exhaustive, said Law and Home Affairs Minister K. Shanmugam yesterday.

"If we provide a closed list, then people will know precisely what the parameters are and can work around them," he said in his speech summing up the discussion of the Bill in Parliament.

He also said the Bill articulates the grounds of public interest with greater specificity and clarity than in earlier laws.

His response came after some MPs had suggested that there was a lack of clarity in the proposed Protection from Online Falsehoods and Manipulation Bill, which was passed yesterday.

The Bill lists several definitions of public interest, including Singapore's security; to protect public health, public finances, public safety or public tranquillity; and Singapore's friendly relations with other countries.

Non-Constituency MP Dennis Tan said he found them to be too general and the precise scope is not clearly spelt out.

"For example, in the context of falsehoods, what does it mean by 'to protect public health or public finances' or 'to secure public safety or public tranquillity'? What acts or words will definitively trigger each of these definitions?" he asked.

 
 
 
 
 
 

He also raised the concern about the list of definitions being non-exhaustive.

"I am concerned that in future, what else may be read by a minister as a further definition or example of 'in the public interest'," he added.

Mr Tan also said he was concerned with the extension of the definition of public interest to include not diminishing public confidence in the Government. This may deter bona fide criticism to expose government failings, he added.

Mr Shanmugam asked what was meant by bona fide criticism when falsehoods are put out through means such as bots, trolls and fake accounts.

He said: "As a lawyer, Mr Tan will understand what is meant by bona fide criticism. Certainly, this will not be considered by any court, or any reasonable person, as bona fide criticism."

Mr Darryl David (Ang Mo Kio GRC) asked for clarity on what would be considered a diminution of public interest in institutions.

Mr Shanmugam gave a few examples of incidents that have happened in other countries.

There was a forged letter from Sweden to Ukraine, asking Sweden to ensure the dismissal of a court case concerning Ukrainian war crimes, which was to make people believe that their governments were not above interfering in justice, he said.

In another case, there was a false claim that Swedish police had said there were 50 "no-go" areas in Sweden filled with illegal immigrants, and these areas were too dangerous for even the police to enter.

"If you were to make a comment that Swedish police do not have things under control, or Singapore police do not have things under control, you are welcome to say that, that won't be covered by the Bill.

"But if you say, by specific reference, that these are no-go areas, then that's either true or it's not true," said Mr Shanmugam.

Lim Min Zhang

A version of this article appeared in the print edition of The Straits Times on May 09, 2019, with the headline 'Why list of public interest grounds is non-exhaustive'. Print Edition | Subscribe