Singapore—“I don’t agree there’s a chilling effect,” Senior Minister of State for Law and Health Edwin Tong said regarding the possibility that the new bill meant to address the dissemination of online falsehoods will curb political discussions.
He said this at a forum at the Singapore Management University (SMU)’s Li Ka Shing library entitled “Truth and Lies: Trust in Times of Information Disorder,” on Wednesday, April 3.
The Senior Minister of State for Law and Health sought to clarify the differences between falsehoods and merely airing opinions or criticism.
Mr Tong used the following example.
“If I say: ‘I think the government’s policies on the CPF are terrible,’ – that’s not a fact, that is a criticism. If I say: ‘The CPF account is bankrupt – the money is not there,’ and I published it and causes a panic amongst people. That’s a statement of fact.”
He responded to a question concerning whether the Protection from Online Falsehoods and Manipulation Bill could cause people to become cautious in discussions since they may be uncertain as to whether what they say could be taken as a statement of fact that could be misleading or false.
Mr Tong said that the new bill will only encompass statements of fact and therefore, does not affect individuals who state their perspectives or beliefs.
The new bill gives ministers the discretion to act quickly against untruths online that are dangerous to public interest through ordering that corrections be made or that the content in question be taken down. However, individuals who disagree with this may contest this in court.
Mr Tong said that this is “not very different from how the Government might be expected to react if there was anything that affected the safety of our society. It might be physical safety, it might be from toxic gases, it might be from diseases. If we have basis to believe that public interest would be undermined, then the Government must make the first call.”
Another question arose concerning the breadth of the online audience that the bill applies to, and the Minister answered by saying that even in a small closed group on a messaging application such as WhatsApp, the bill applies whenever an individual makes a false statement of fact that undermines public interest.
“I don’t agree there’s a chilling effect. I do agree there must be more effort to draw the distinction between what’s a fact and a comment or opinion among the public when the law comes into effect.”
Mr Tong also talked about costs if and when someone desires to contest in court that the statement they made is actually true when it’s been regarded false by a minister, since these costs are considerable.
He said there are provisions for legal assistance for those in need of them, but that the person contesting should prepare proof as to why they made the statements they did.
According to Mr Tong, “Those of us who need financial help, support or legal advice, systems are available in place to assist them…We are not talking about going to court on a complicated two-week trial or hearing that requires a lot of time and expense to deal with.”
The Minister also answered a question concerning what the consequences could be if the Government would deem a statement to be false and then the courts overturn this.
He said, “Obviously over time, if this keeps happening, then trust in the government will also be undermined. The government is not the one that stands outside of the system, without any (judicial) oversight.”
According to the new bill, those who are found in violation of it could be fined up to S$ 1 million, or face a ten-year jail sentence.-TISG
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