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Minister says fake news bill will become law in the second half of 2019

S. Iswaran was speaking to Bloomberg in a television interview where he said that what was being looked at was "…what we call "falsehoods" – or "false statements of fact" as the lawyers would call them – and how they impact on public interest. It is when the two come together…then we would issue corrective orders"

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Minister for Communications and Information S Iswaran told Bloomberg on Monday (15 Apr) that the draft Protection from Online Falsehoods and Manipulation Act (POFMA) will become law in the second half of this year.

The bill, which aims to provide the government with powers to act against online falsehoods to protect public interest, intends to give ministers the authority to determine what is an online falsehood.

The bill proposes that domain ministers can decide whether to take action under two conditions: when a false statement of a fact has been communicated in Singapore through the Internet, and when it is in the public interest to intervene.

In a television interview with the US-based news channel, Iswaran said that the “bill and what we are intending here does not in any way impinge on criticism, opinion, satire or parody.”

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He clarified that what the bill “really tries to do is ensure that when we have that engagement, that contest of ideas, it is truly based on facts…We want to ensure that way, all citizens in Singapore are well-informed and can engage constructively.”

Asserting that the Government aims to “find a path that works best for us in Singapore,” Iswaran clarified: “We want to ensure free speech continues – unfettered – on the internet, and in general in discourse.

“What we are looking at is really…that there is what we call “falsehoods” – or “false statements of fact” as the lawyers would call them – and how they impact on the public interest. It is when the two come together…then we would issue corrective orders.”

Iswaran further said that the correction orders that can be issued is meant to “ensure that the access to facts is available to the readers…In other words, not to suppress information, but to give greater access to facts. And then the readers can decide for themselves.”

When asked about jail terms and fines that individuals or publications can be charged with under the bill, Iswaran said that these harsher measures would apply to those who are not compliant with the law. He said:

“The criminal punishments are really [centred] around malicious actors, who go about deliberately propagating falsehoods on the internet, knowing that it is going to cause public harm.
“So that is a significantly higher threshold from a legal point of view, and I think essentially what we are trying to establish here is a regime of governance for the internet, which has hitherto not been governed in a manner that ensures the speech and the discourse on social media and the Internet is informed by factual statements.”

On how the new legislation will be enforced, he said: “Well, I think in general if you look at the legislation that has been introduced around the world, there are some stiff penalties…And in fact, ours – we have calibrated it.”

In response to concerns regarding the powers that ministers are granted under the law, the Minister pointed to “a series of checks and balances” that are present in the process. He said:

“Even though the ministers can issue the directions, we have got established legal principles about what is fact and what is opinion…and this is laid down by the courts. So it’s not something that the executive arm of the government can arbitrarily decide upon.”

He also told the interviewer that the Government is introducing legislation to tackle fake news since it thinks “it’s important that governments also take the initiative.” He added: “And in fact, tech companies have told us as well, and I think we know their position publicly as well.”

Watch the video in full HERE.

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