WP MPs vote against Bill, criticising powers given to ministers

All nine Workers' Party (WP) MPs yesterday voted against a Bill that they have roundly criticised for granting Cabinet ministers too much power in deciding on falsehoods that are against the public interest.

They contended that the Protection from Online Falsehoods and Manipulation Bill will have a chilling effect on free speech, as the Government could wield it to stifle criticism and protect its interests.

The opposition MPs also made the case for their counter-proposal, which is to have the courts act as the initial decision maker on what is false instead of vesting that power in Cabinet ministers, as provided for in the proposed law which was passed last night.

Mr Faisal Manap (Aljunied GRC) - the first WP MP to speak yesterday - said the Bill contains elements that can lead to abuse of power, which in turn will undermine social cohesion. He and other WP MPs took issue with clauses, such as what constitutes "in the public interest".

Non-Constituency MP (NCMP) Dennis Tan said he found the definitions to be too general, and its scope not clearly spelt out.

One clause states it is in the public interest for a minister to act against a piece of falsehood to prevent a diminution of public confidence in the performance of any duty or function of the Government.

Mr Tan noted that the diminution of confidence in the Government is "not found in fake news legislation elsewhere in the world".

 
 
 
 

He expressed concern that extending the definition of public interest to include not diminishing public confidence in the Government may deter bona fide criticism and well-meaning intentions to expose government failings.

No government will always be correct, he said, adding: "It is for the Government, by its own efforts, to earn and maintain public confidence in itself, and any use of law to deter the diminution of public confidence will run counter to that."

WP chairman Sylvia Lim (Aljunied GRC) said judicial oversight is "severely limited" under the new law.

She noted that the burden of proof falls on the individual whom the Government deemed to have made a false statement, who has to show the statement was true, and this is a tall order, given the "asymmetry of information" between the authorities and the public.

Under the new law, an individual who wants to challenge a minister's decision on a falsehood can first appeal to the minister, followed by the High Court if that initial appeal is rejected. There is also an option for judicial review.

Ms Lim said the new law does not provide for the High Court to inquire into the merits of the minister's decision and whether it was indeed in the public interest for the minister to order a correction or take-down of a false statement, among other things.

On the option of judicial review, she said it is not easy for an individual to mount a challenge and win.

Mr Png Eng Huat (Hougang) said the new law would be especially dangerous during an election, as it would allow an incumbent who is seeking re-election the "sole power to remove any damaging statement made against the party and its leaders, in the name of public interest".

Describing this as the "nuclear option", he said it would allow any minister to influence elections, one of the very things the new law is supposed to guard against.

WP chief Pritam Singh and NCMP Leon Perera also defended their proposal for the courts to decide on falsehoods in the first instance.

 
 
 

Mr Vikram Nair (Sembawang GRC) had described it as a "complete abuse of judicial process" and "completely unworkable".

Law and Home Affairs Minister K. Shanmugam asked Mr Singh if he could guarantee that the courts would always be able to act on falsehoods "in a matter of hours", a timeframe set out in a Select Committee report on online falsehoods.

The minister had highlighted the difficulty of ensuring a duty judge is always available to respond to such cases, among other things.

Mr Singh had pointed to the debate on the Protection from Harassment (Amendment) Bill, which provides for a new court to be set up as well as measures to ensure swifter help for victims, among other things. These, he said, suggest that there is some scope for the courts to deal with the urgent issue of falsehoods in a speedy fashion.

Mr Perera and Ms Lim both said they believe the courts would be able to respond to falsehoods quickly enough if processes to report such cases are streamlined and the institution is properly resourced.

WP NCMP Daniel Goh urged the Government to work on good communication and public engagement, instead of using the law to force corrections on people.

This, he said, would have the opposite effect and "create an easy and speedy way out from the hard work they should be doing instead".

"I don't understand why the Government would want to protect their ministers from the test of public reason," he added.

Addressing Mr Shanmugam's argument that ministers can be voted out during elections if they abused the law, Dr Goh said: "It is irresponsible political brinkmanship. It is saying to the citizens, 'If you are not happy with my decision, I dare you to vote me out.'"

On calls for a Freedom of Information Act, Mr Singh said it cannot be seen as a silver bullet, but it is one part of citizen engagement that will help build trust and raise the standard of public conversation.

A version of this article appeared in the print edition of The Straits Times on May 09, 2019, with the headline 'WP MPs vote against Bill, criticising powers given to ministers'. Print Edition | Subscribe