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It’s good that POHA can’t be used by Government but where does the Courts stand on fake news?

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By: Ghui

The recent court case which ruled that MINDEF cannot be construed as a “person” under the Protection of Harassment Act (POHA) is a double edged sword which may have far reaching consequences. 

Chiefly, it has highlighted the tension between the concepts of separation between the judiciary and the executive and the policy concerns of the government in Singapore. While the two are theoretically supposed to be distinct, there have long been allegations that courts in Singapore are highly sensitive to the requirements of the government.

Prima facie, this landmark ruling can be interpreted by some as a departure from the status quo. Indeed, some have celebrated the verdict as the court applying the brakes on MINDEF’s perceived bullying of an individual private citizen.

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However, this ruling may have the effect of quieting any further debate or discussions on a rather controversial case. As this matter was litigated over the last two years, both the mainstream media and the online media covered the story extensively. Given the public nature of the litigation, a number of issues were revealed.

Defense technology which MINDEF may have preferred kept low key was widely published. Dr Ting’s version of the story which sees him in a David and Goliath struggle with the government has also put MINDEF in a bad light. Regardless of the legal reasoning which may support their case, they were still seen as the huge powerful big bully trying to stamp out a helpless lone citizen. The last thing the court wants is to be perceived as aiding and abetting the playground bully.

If the court had not ruled against MINDEF, the online media would have had another field day covering the verdict and analysing its arguments. Could this ruling be viewed as a means to quell the disquiet once and for all, preventing another round of conspiracy theories? I.e. we have now ruled against the bully, let’s move on and forget this?

But what about the more pressing question of what constitutes fake news?

While this verdict may be seen as “in favour” of TOC, it hasn’t really answered the question for future disagreements on news content. The court has not categorically said that TOC was not guilty in the perpetuation of fake news. All it has said is that the government cannot use the POHA to mandate that TOC take down its article.

While the end result is the same in this instance – i.e. that TOC’s article can remain as is – this does not mean that we can come to same conclusion in a different incident. What the court has done, purposefully or otherwise, is to permit TOC’s article while giving the government the leeway to use another means with which to quash TOC’s story. Will another act be enacted to curb alternate media outlets in future similar occurrences?

In this case, TOC had reported Dr. Ting’s version of the story. However, TOC also made clear in the same article that it had written to MINDEF for its version of events which it will publish. In my mind, this makes clear that there may be another version of the story. How then can this be the dissemination of fake news?

Fake implicates deception. Has there been any deception here?

By holding that the POHA cannot be utilised by the government in this instance does not really solve the problem. All it has done is to postpone dealing with it. If I don my skeptic’s hat on, I may even suspect that this will buy the government time to come up with another solution to the problem of errant media outlets that do not toe the line.

While I am in agreement with the court that the POHA should not be used by the government against an individual, it still does not answer the pertinent question of where the courts stand in relation to fake news and what it constitutes.

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