Singapore—Inderjit Singh, a former MP with the ruling People’s Action Party (PAP), has weighed in on the proposed bill meant to address fake news and hate speech, Protection from Online Falsehoods and Manipulation Bill, which was tabled in Parliament in April. The bill is expected to be passed this month.
A number of people have expressed concerns over POFMA not just in Singapore but worldwide, including academics, journalists and human rights organisations, over the Bill’s vague language, as well as the wide scope of powers it gives ministers in its implementation.
For Inderjit Singh, POFMA could either make Singapore a leading light in fighting the destruction that fake news can bring about if carried out in the right way or if done wrongly, Singapore’s anti-fake news bill could cause people to lose faith in Government.
In an opinion piece for the South China Morning Post (SCMP) on Wednesday, May 1, Mr Singh acknowledged the areas of concern people have with POFMA: “the powers vested in ministers, the speed of appeal, the legal recourse that those deemed guilty of spreading online falsehoods have, as well the how harsh the punishment meted out to them should be.”
While Mr Singh calls it ‘practical’ for ministers to quash fake news quickly, before it can do much harm, it is the processes after this first response that can be problematic.
He gave the process of appeal as an example, which could possibly give rise to cases of abuse of authority.
“An appeal against the minister’s order must be made to him or her. This effectively has the minister sitting as a judge on an appeal against his or her earlier decision, which makes it quite impossible to avoid the appearance of bias.”
While POFMA allows for appealing to the Courts as well, concerns over this process as time-consuming and costly have been expressed.
Mr Singh mentions the suggestion, made by others, that “the Government could consider convening an independent appeals committee of publicly respected men and women, to distance the appeal process from the minister,” but notes that the “independence of such a committee may be questioned.”
As an alternative, the former PAP MP suggests “setting up a fast-track court process after the Minister’s initial decision,” which would expedite the process and prevent high costs and would also be easy to understand for citizens.
He writes, “Importantly, this will assure the public that the state takes the legal rights of its citizens seriously.”
Mr Singh mentions that since Home Affairs and Law Minister K Shanmugam said that challenging ministers’ decisions in such cases would be “fast and relatively inexpensive,” he suggests that the form filed for making appeals can be “a single-page online document drafted in simple English that most Singaporeans would be able to fill up without a lawyer,” as Mr Shanmugam had also said that it would be possible for citizens to represent themselves, without lawyers.
And if someone wanted to make an appeal with the help of a lawyer but lacked the resources to do so, Mr Singh writes, “he or she should have access to legal aid. This is perhaps where the Law Society can play a role.”
Punishments and Penalties
The next issue Mr Singh discussed is the punishment for those found guilty under POFMA. “There are still concerns that harsh punishments could have a chilling effect on those who may otherwise be willing to express contrarian views on matters of public interest,” he writes.
For the former MP, the most vital point is getting the individual/s who put up the fake news to take it down, since POFMA’s intent is to “protect individuals and society from harm.”
In other words, protection, and not punishment, is the larger goal, which means that penalties for transgression should not be heavy, he believes.
Mr. Singh writes,
“If the punishment includes heavy fines and jail terms, then this may cause people to not speak out at all, indirectly curtailing the freedom of speech.”
And because Singapore would be “among the first in the developed world to enact these anti-fake news laws,” Mr Singh suggests “we not have onerous punishments for first-time offenders, and implement punishments with a light touch.”
He goes on to say,
“Finding the right balance between speaking out and the freedom of speech and the cost of spreading fake news is important. Without amendments, the proposed anti-fake news law would be structured in a manner that is tilted towards creating some fear that may curb freedom of expression.”
Finally, the former PAP MP suggests that the proposed bill undergo another round of public fora.
“The outcome of another round of consultation with the public, civil society, academia, and all political parties could well result in legislation that is robust and well-accepted.”
Emphasizing how important it is to get the bill right, due to its far-reaching implications.
Mr Singh outlines what exactly is at stake with POFMA.
“Done right, this is an ideal opportunity for Singapore to take a leadership role in combating the spread of fake news.
Done in a wrong way, there is a risk of people losing trust in the Government, despite its best intentions in tackling this challenging issue.
The Government should not take the concerns raised lightly as the stakes are high and an overreaching law will have long-lasting effects.”/ TISG