Singapore— The country’s proposed legislation to combat fake news and hate speech online was debated in Parliament on Tuesday, May 7, with MPs crossing swords on several issues such as whether the courts or the Government should be making decisions about fake news, and if the checks against ministers potentially abusing their powers are enough.

Regarding the Protection from Online Falsehoods Bill, Workers’ Party (WP) MP Pritam Singh suggested that it would be better if the courts made decisions regarding the issuing of corrections or take-down decisions in the matter of fake news, rather than ministers, Channel NewsAsia (CNA) reports.

This did not go over well with People’s Action Party (PAP) MP Christopher de Souza, who said that since online falsehoods pose threats that are “dynamic”, “evolve swiftly” and can “spread like fire,” these threats “need to be curbed and responded to robustly before they can cause harm.”

For Mr de Souza, the issue is one of time, and going through the process in court would be more time-consuming. He used a hypothetical riot as an example. If such an incident were to take place during hours when courts are already closed, nobody would be around to make decisions.

On the other hand, he argued, ministers can easily access information that would help them make needed decisions quickly. Should violence ensue at such a riot, ministers can take swift action instead of waiting for the court to issue orders.

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Mr de Souza said, “I have great respect for the courts and I think as a tier of review above the minister, they are best placed to decide if the order was correct or not, to begin with. But not to put the courts in the mix where it is such a dynamic situation.”

However, Mr Singh cited an example from Germany, that was included in the  Select Committee on Deliberate Online Falsehoods’ report. In that incident, when the police in Germany disproved a story that pertained to a rape victim, this is what contributed to more protests.

The Workers’ Party MP said,

“Executive action in itself may not always be the solution that will solve the problem. I think it is important to understand that there could be other solutions that may work.”

Nominated MP Irene Quay proposed that an independent council be set up, apparently in lieu of ministers making decisions concerning online falsehoods and what makes up a fact.

Mr de Souza also questioned the nature of this independent council.

It was explained by Ms Quay that the proposed independent council would work to oversee past cases concerning online falsehoods in order to improve similar Bills in the future.

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Mr de Souza was not the only one who had questions for his fellow MPs. Words were also exchanged between former WP chief Low Thia Khiang and Senior Parliamentary Secretary for Home Affairs and National Development Sun Xueling.

Speaking in Mandarin, Mr Low said that the Bill had a “hidden agenda.”

“To introduce such a bill is not what the government claims to defend democracy and public interest, it is more like the actions of a dictatorial government that will resort to any means to hold on to absolute power.”

He took exception to the definition of falsehoods, calling it “ambiguous,” and said that POFMA “allows a minister to have absolute power to decide what are falsehoods and what punishments to mete out.”

Furthermore, he pointed out that, “It is like during a match, the minister is both player and referee.”

He then emphasized his party’s stand that it would be better if it were the courts who made decisions regarding fake news, but also said that this process would be “both time-consuming and energy-sapping.”

On her part, Ms Sun argued that POFMA provides for ministers to be monitored on “three fronts” for the sake of guarding the public interest.

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First, if someone were to receive a direction for correction, they can go to the court to appeal and challenge the direction from the minister.

Secondly, is the court appeal itself, since the court is the “final arbiter”.

The third is the ministers’ accountability to the rest of Parliament since fellow MPs can question other ministers’ decisions regarding online falsehoods. Moreover, the decisions that ministers make will be made known to the public.

Ms Sun also made an analogy to the Chinese character for the word “public.”

She said that it “is made up of three (characters referring to) ‘people’. In order to take care of public interest, the minister is monitored on three fronts (under this new Bill).”

In a rebuttal, Mr Low pointed out that despite having the court process in place, ministers still make the decision on what makes up a falsehood as well as how public interest is defined, giving ministers what he termed as “ultimate power”.

He said, “Even if we have three people, it’s the minister who holds the responsibility.”

However, the Senior Parliamentary Secretary for Home Affairs and National Development said that the final decision in such matters lies with the court./TISG

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