Is this fake news under proposed law? Shanmugam sets out 4 scenarios and clears the air

A proposed law to fight fake news has been in the spotlight recently, raising questions about how it looks in practice.
A proposed law to fight fake news has been in the spotlight recently, raising questions about how it looks in practice. ST PHOTO: KELVIN CHNG

SINGAPORE - A proposed law to fight fake news has been in the spotlight recently, raising a number of questions about how it looks in practice. 

What counts as fake news? And when can a person be penalised? Home Affairs and Law Minister K. Shanmugam examined four different hypothetical scenarios, and whether they are covered under the proposed law.

1. A law professor states that the death penalty in Singapore does not deter crime, as shown by several studies. 

Shanmugam: These studies present real data. This is a conclusion drawn from certain studies. It is a statement of opinion, and not covered by the Bill. But if it refers to a non-existent study, or non-existent data, then that is a false statement of fact.

2. 'A' states that the Government is showing 'double standards' by having two different permit regimes to govern public activist events on political issues on the one hand, and a public meet-up by an influencer on the other.

Shanmugam: Two different permit regimes do apply to the two different kinds of events. A's statement is an opinion, and is not covered by the Bill.

However, if A says or implies that the same permit rules govern both kinds of events, and double standards were applied for the granting of permits, essentially suggesting bias based on the point that the same legislation applies to both, that is a false statement of fact. It can be covered by the Bill.

The remedy: A clarification containing a statement that the article contains inaccuracies and giving a link to the classification for the true facts. People can read both and decide for themselves.

3. An economist states that the home-ownership rate in Singapore is only 9 per cent and explains that the definition of home ownership used excludes any lease, regardless of whether the lease is for nine years or 99 years. This is a conclusion based on a certain methodology which is set out.

 
 
 

Shanmugam: This is not covered by the Bill. The Government can, of course, disagree with that view. If, however, the economist says that the number of persons that own freehold property in Singapore is X, when it is actually Y, then that is a false statement of fact.

4. 'B' publishes an online article stating that the social welfare system in Singapore has gaps. This conclusion is drawn from interviews with government officials and social workers.

Shanmugam: The Government can disagree with the conclusion. This does not come under the Bill.

If, however, B's article says that welfare assistance had been denied to a needy elderly person, when assistance had in fact been given, that is a false statement of fact.

If public interest is affected, it can come under this Bill.

This is a situation where the original article can carry a clarification. In these cases, if the author believed in what he or she was saying, there can be no criminality.