Draft law on online falsehoods will not affect academic work, regardless of viewpoint: MOE

The Ministry of Education was responding to a letter sent by a group of 58 academics from around the world to Education Minister Ong Ye Kung about the "unintended detrimental consequences" of the Bill. PHOTO: ST FILE

SINGAPORE - Singapore's draft law to curb the spread of online falsehoods does not restrict opinion, and will not affect academic research work, said the Ministry of Education (MOE), in response to concerns raised by a group of academics.

In a statement on Friday (April 12), the MOE, referring to the Protection from Online Falsehoods and Manipulation Bill, said: "The Bill covers verifiably false statements of fact which affect public interest. The Bill does not restrict opinion and will not affect academic research work.

"This is true regardless of what view the work presents."

The ministry was responding to a letter sent by a group of 58 academics from around the world - including Singaporeans based here and overseas - to Education Minister Ong Ye Kung on Thursday about the "unintended detrimental consequences" of the Bill, saying it could lead to self-censorship.

The Bill, tabled in Parliament on April 1, is aimed at protecting society against the fake news scourge.

The proposed law is confined to the communication of false or misleading statements of fact which are against public interest, with those found guilty of deliberately spreading such falsehoods facing punishments such as jail or fine.

Those who have inadvertently spread them may be asked to put up corrections or asked to remove their posts. Social media companies can also be required to block access to accounts that purvey falsehoods, among other things.

Critics have said the law could stifle speech, and the 58 academics echoed the same concern in their letter, which was seen by The Straits Times.

While acknowledging that the proposed law is not targeted at the academic community and does not apply to opinion, criticisms, satire and parody, the academics said in the letter that much of academic work involves the disputing of "apparently established 'facts'", which could potentially put scholars and researchers in the crosshairs of the proposed law.

They said "facts" are confirmed or denied through the process of research, and continuously reappraised as new data and analysis become available over time.

"Thus for many phenomena it is not possible to state definitively what is a 'fact' proven for all time, and what is a conjecture or hypothesis that may turn out to be 'false or misleading'."

"It is specifically those statements that 'a reasonable person' would consider 'to be a representation of fact' that are most usefully subject to rigorous academic scrutiny," said the group.

They added that much of scholarly discourse these days takes place online, via social media, blogs and open access journals, saying the "wide reach" of the draft law both in and outside of Singapore could discourage academics from continuing to disseminate ongoing research on the Internet, and hinder Singapore's ability to serve as an academic and innovation hub.

They also raised concerns about the "broad definition" of public interest in the Bill, and its requirement that technology companies be responsible for content posted on their platforms.

"Under these circumstances, (the proposed law) is likely to make many academics hesitant to conduct or supervise research that might unknowingly fall afoul of (the proposed law), or refer colleagues or students to faculty positions in Singapore's respected universities," they said.

"This Act discourages scholars from marshalling their expertise in precisely the areas where it is most needed - namely, pressing questions and challenges for which there are no clear answers or easy solutions."

The group, who described themselves as "academics who have expertise, experience or interest in Singapore and Asia generally", also warned that Singapore's draft law might set an international precedent and stymie global scholarly research on an even wider scale.

"We hope that government deliberations of the proposed law will take into account these concerns of the global academic community, clarify the law's applications to academia, and ensure safeguards for scholarly research and its online outreach, to minimise the likely adverse effects on global as well as local innovation, knowledge production and dissemination," they added.

Singaporean academics who signed the letter include National University of Singapore Associate Professor Chong Ja Ian, Singapore Management University Professor Pang Eng Fong, Nanyang Technological University Associate Professor Teo You Yenn.

Others include Hong Kong Baptist University Professor Cherian George, University of Michigan Professor Linda Lim, Hong Kong University of Science and Technology Professor Donald Low, and University of Sydney Professor Lily Rahim.

In response, the MOE said the academics - "the overwhelming majority of whom are based overseas" - can also refer to statements which law professors have made on the Bill.

Singapore Management University School of Law Dean Goh Yihan, for instance, had said at a forum on fake news on April 3 that the Bill strikes a right balance in giving ministers the power to make the initial call to swiftly address the problem, and then allowing that decision to be challenged in court.

He had also said that falsehoods affect freedom of speech and undermine democracy by affecting the quality of public discourse.

MOE also said: "We have extended an invitation to the autonomous universities to hold discussion sessions for their academics to clarify any concerns they may have, and look forward to meaningful discussions on the Bill."

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