Singapore— In a Parliament session on Tuesday, May 7, criticism for the exemption of public agencies from lawsuits for peddling falsehoods under the updated Protection from Harassment Act (POHA) laws came from the opposition Workers’ Party (WP).
Pritam Singh, the secretary-general of the WP came down hard on the government when the enhanced anti-harassment laws were passed, as they exempt the government from being sued. Mr Singh called it “a glaring omission,” and moreover, he also said it was a “lost opportunity at winning the trust of the public”.
“More fundamentally, it does not conform to the principle that the rule of law applies equally to all.”
In response, Edwin Tong, the Senior Minister of State for Law replied that in general, the Government is not bound by legislation unless “it expressly provides for that to be so,” according to a report from TODAY Online.
He added, “As to how government officers can be held accountable, that can always be done in a usual forum, like Parliament.
The Government has taken the view that it will not avail itself of remedies under the Protection from Harassment Act (POHA), and likewise, it will not be subject to provisions under POHA.”
Changes to POHA include the criminalisation of publishing the personal information of anyone with an eye toward harassment, threats or inciting violence against them, otherwise known as “doxxing.”
Many of the changes to POHA are centered around married or unmarried victims of intimate-partner violence to get help and protection, which now provides that breaches of protection orders is an offence that merits arrest.
For falsehoods, courts will be given a broader scope of orders, with victims able to apply for interim orders in incidents wherein they desire falsehoods about them to be taken down immediately.
Due to this broader scope, courts can now also issue general correction orders, which are like those drawn up under Singapore’s proposed fake-news bill, which was also part of the debate on Tuesday.
However, it is important to note that this kind of order can only be made against people or business entities, and not the Government. In a similar way, the Government has no recourse under POHA regarding fake news.
According to Mr Singh, people or businesses are not allowed to apply to the courts in situations where the Government has told falsehoods about them, leading him to ask,
“Why shouldn’t the public receive protection provided by this Bill – against a prospective government or minister that uses his or her powers not just unwisely but maliciously – with a view to seek a remedy from a neutral body like the courts?”
He also said, ”What this effectively means is that an individual or company cannot apply to the Harassment Courts in case the Government makes misleading or false statements against them.”
He added that under the changes to POHA, a false statement is defined as one that is false or misleading. He then asked how courts will interpret the boundaries of misleading statements within the context of the new solutions given in the bill.
“Therefore a statement can be potentially misleading if it does not cover all the relevant facts or represent the matter fairly – and the choice of which facts are chosen usually turns on where you stand on any given matter, philosophically, politically or morally, for example,” Mr Singh said./TSIG