Workers' Party (WP) Secretary-General Pritam Singh announced that his party would oppose the Protection From Online Falsehoods and Manipulations Bill.
Speaking in Parliament on May 7, during the debate on the second reading of the Bill, Pritam said:
"Mr Speaker, the Workers’ Party opposes this Bill. All the Workers’ Party MPs will speak against it. Our objections centre primarily around a fundamental matter."
Reasons for the opposition
As a lawyer and also having served on the Select Committee on Deliberate Online Falsehoods, Pritam is more familiar than most with the Bill.
He laid out the reasons for the WP's opposition. They include:
- The decision-making authority, or the Executive, should not be the initial decision-maker on matters surrounding false statements of facts.
- The WP does not support the uncertainty over the circumstances under which the Executive can act, which rests purely on a minister's subjective opinion that a false or misleading statement is not in the public interest.
- The decision that a particular false statement is not in the public interest is needed for a correction or a take-down order.
Pritam added, "While the government must legitimately be able to apply to shut down malicious actors, a court order should legitimise the action that needs to be undertaken."
Potential abuse of power
Pritam said that the Select Committee report noted that some contributors were worried about a hypothetical Executive that itself spread falsehoods. He said:
"To reinforce this point, it is apparent that the Bill gives remarkable leeway to the Executive to define what a falsehood, especially since the Government has said that it will not act on all falsehoods."
He cited Clause 2(2), which legislates that a statement can be deemed false if it is misleading -- whether wholly or in part -- which appears to give the Executive a "broad latitude" to clamp down what it deems to be misleading statements which may not be false.
What is the "public interest"?
Pritam next addressed the question of "public interest", including the "diminution of public confidence in the government", which he took to mean how thick or thin-skinned the government was.
To illustrate his point, Pritam referred to video blogger Nuseir Yassin, who was criticised for organising an event at the Botanic Garden, with allegations of double standards on the part of the authorities.
"Some weeks ago, some critics - of what many reasonable people would consider, correctly or incorrectly, to be a pro-Government influencer Nas Daily - were accused of seeking to undermine confidence in public institutions...This led the Singapore Police Force to release a statement which framed the allegations of the critics as, I quote “a malicious attempt to undermine confidence in public institutions.” Unquote."
Pritam said the conclusion was that the Act could be easily invoked by the Executive.
He also pointed out that as the list is "non-exhaustive", the definitions of "public interest" are potentially unknown.
The courts are non-interventionist
Pritam acknowledged the government's argument that the courts will be the final arbiter of truth.
However, Pritam said that judicial culture in Singapore is "non-interventionist".
As it is the minister, not the judge, that first decides to act based on what he or she deems to be a "misleading statement" and a matter of "public interest", Pritam said it was open to question if a traditionally non-interventionist judiciary will challenge the interpretations of the Executive.
Public apprehension due to past history
Pritam referred to Singapore history and previous cases of lawsuits for defamation contributing to public apprehension. He said:
"Given our unique laws that govern how the press operates in Singapore, the infamously local phrase, “out-of-bound” or OB markers, and our unique political culture steeped in a history of hauling up members of the public and politicians who utter defamatory statements to court to be slapped with punitive damages.
There is a genuine sense amongst the public that this Bill can easily abused in the wrong hands."
Pritam added that there was also confusion over what can or can't be said -- such as how a false statement of fact interplays with an opinion or comment.
The Bill therefore had the potential to be a Sword of Damocles, or a looming threat, hanging over the head of members of public who do not tow the government line or support its narratives.
Discussions limited/exaggerated due to lack of information.
Pritam acknowledged that the rise of fake news through online platforms was a problem.
But by allowing the Executive to decide what is an actionable falsehood, there is "disquiet" among members of the public.
Pritam made the point that the public were often involved in discussions, both online and offline, on matters like policies, Executive action, the size of Singapore's reserves, and so on.
He said that by nature, such discussions were limited and exaggerated because the government may not be forthcoming with information, and there is no freedom of information act to compel them to do so.
Pritam also cited the historical examples of Operation Spectrum and the Marxist Conspiracy, and said that not everyone agreed with the government's exercise of powers, including a senior Cabinet member.
As even ministers could disagree with each other on the use of such powers, Pritam opined that the courts would be a more neutral, transparent and accountable decision-maker.
Pritam addressed the government's case for having the minister act first while the courts acted as final arbiter, so that a false statement could be corrected or taken down quickly. He said:
"If so, it would be important to put this factor into perspective and consider alternatives that seek to balance the urgency of moving against an online falsehood and having a decision maker that is more acceptable than an unchecked Executive."
Introduce duty judges
Pritam suggested instead that quick remedies are already available elsewhere, such as in the newly-passed Protection from Harassment Act.
Instead of allowing a minister to take first action, especially with "politically-charged" decisions, Pritam instead suggested introducing duty judges to handle "urgent applications" at short notice.
"In conclusion, Mr Speaker, the Workers’ Party is of the view that as a matter of principle, the Courts should be the decision-makers at the very first instance on matters that pertain to deliberate online falsehoods and manipulation."
Top image via screenshot from CNA.