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International Commission of Jurists urges SG govt not to pass Online Falsehood Bill without substantial amendments

The ICJ says that the bill in its current form, is a "real risk" to public interest

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The International Commission of Jurists (ICJ) has explicitly labelled Singapore’s Protection from Online Falsehoods and Manipulation Bill dubious and incompatible with worldwide legal principles as far as its present composition and structure is concerned. In its current form, the Bill is viewed as a “real risk” to public interest.

Prime Minister Lee Hsien Loong, Deputy Prime Ministers Teo Chee Hean and Tharman Shanmugaratnam, Law Minister K. Shanmugam, and Parliament Speaker Tan Chuan-Jin received an open letter from ICJ’s Legal and Policy Director Ian Seiderman on April 12 on behalf of the Commission.

The letter states, “Its provisions present a real risk that it can be wielded in an arbitrary manner to curtail important discussion of matters of public interest in the public sphere, including content critical of the government.”

“Critical dissent, free exchange and development of opinions, and free access to information are necessary to maintain an informed society and ensure transparency, accountability and informed debate on crucial matters of public interest,” Seiderman highlighted.

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The Online Falsehood Bill’s provisions “are likely to be unnecessary and disproportionate in application to legitimate aims of ensuring national security or public order”, he added.

For instance, terminologies like ‘public tranquility’ and ‘public interest’ are “too broad to constitute legitimate purposes for restriction” when left without a clear demarcation and apparent characterisation within the Bill, Seiderman explained.

The Bill also failed to exemplify “fundamental terms pertaining to the implementation of the law” such as ‘false statement of fact’ and ‘public interest’, which he contended will impede people from formulating a “precise understanding of the law” and to subsequently “regulate their conduct accordingly”.

“They also open the law up to a real risk of misuse by ministers and government authorities charged with its implementation,” warned Seiderman.

Seiderman alluded to David Kaye’s proposals as Special Rapporteur on the Promotion and Protection of the Right to Freedom of Opinion and Expression in April 2018 on what governments can do to manage online content:

  • State regulation of online content should entail “smart regulation, not heavy-handed viewpoint-based regulation”;
  • Restriction of content by States should only be made “pursuant to an order by an independent and impartial judicial authority, and in accordance with due process and standards of legality, necessity and legitimacy” and “not impose disproportionate sanctions”; and
  • Any restrictions limiting freedom of expression and opinion must be clearly provided in law and may only be those strictly necessary and proportionate for a narrow range of purposes, such as protection of national security and public order or the rights or reputation of others, in accordance with international law standards.”

When Ministers K Shanmugam and S Iswaran attempted to assure the international body  that parodies and satirical content do not fall under the scope of the bill, ICJ contended that “defences of public interest, honest mistake, parody and artistic merit are also not provided for under the bill.”

“The bill also does not provide for prompt access to an effective remedy – judicial or administrative – to those aggrieved in the event of allegedly abusive or otherwise unlawful application of the restrictions contained therein.

“There is no recourse available for a direction or order made under the bill to be quashed on judicial review grounds of illegality, irrationality and procedural impropriety,” were further written in the letter.

“We thus urge the Singapore Parliament not to pass into law the Online Falsehoods Bill, at the very least without substantial amendments to address the deficiencies described above,” concluded ICJ.

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