PAP GOVT GETS TO DECIDE WHAT CONSTITUTES FALSE NEWS? ANOTHER ATTEMPT TO STIFLE FREE SPEECH?

Govt should be entitled to point out falsehoods under law

I refer to the article “Govt should be entitled to point out falsehoods under law: MinLaw” (Channel NewsAsia, Jan 22).

It states that “The Government, like any other person, should be entitled to point out falsehoods which are published and have the true facts brought to public attention under the law …

On Monday, the Court of Appeal had ruled in a rare split decision that the Government cannot invoke an anti-harassment law, the Protection from Harassment Act (POHA), that allows people to stop the publication of false statements against them.

The Ministry of Defence had sought to invoke the law to get socio-political website The Online Citizen to take down statements made by inventor Dr Ting Choon Meng about a patent rights dispute.

Worker’s Party issued a statement expressing concern

The Worker’s Party (WP) issued a statement on Sunday expressing concern that the Government was looking into taking further action on the matter.

“Risks weakening Singapore’s climate of free speech and robust debate”

“For the POHA to be used to protect the Government from ‘harassment’ risks weakening Singapore’s climate of free speech and robust debate.

It risks turning the POHA into the latest in the many tools that the Government can use against Singaporeans who publicly express different views from the Government on its policies and actions,” WP said in the statement.

However, MinLaw said the Act provides remedies for two “distinct” types of wrongs: Harassment and false statements.

“The Government has never said that it needed protection from harassment. Nor does the Government intend to amend POHA to protect itself from harassment,” it said.

Instead, the ministry said that its position on the POHA had to do with false information. “The Government needs to take steps to protect the public and Singapore’s institutions from the very real dangers posed by the spread of false information,” it said, adding that it would not “shy away” from doing so.

“The Government strongly believes that the scourge of false information must not be allowed to take hold in Singapore, lest it weakens our democratic society and institutions,” it added.

“At a time when false information can affect election results, contaminate public discussions and weaken democratic societies, it is important for the Government, as well as corporations and individuals, to be able to respond robustly to false statements that could poison public debate and mislead decision-making. Everyone, including the Government, should be entitled to point out falsehoods which are published, and have the true facts brought to public attention””.

In the public interest and fair comment?

In this connection, is it arguably, in the public interest and fair comment, to ask for some clarification as to what may constitute as “false information”?

The issue of “false information” may not be as straightforward or simple as it may seem.

Who gets to determine, perhaps arguably, arbitrarily what is false, or how false or how true the information (in part or in its entirety) may be?

What if information (in part or in its entirety) that was at one point in time deemed to be wholly true, but then subsequently may seemingly be deemed to be not so true, or for that matter not so false after all?

Another example may be that of court judgements, as legal history may be littered with many cases of what the judge determined to be true or false on the weight of the evidence and arguments before him or her, that subsequently turn out to be different, such as by way of the discovery of new evidence or old evidence that was not presented to the court or in the right manner, or subjective interpretations on points of law?

Yet another example, may similarily be that of say police investigations, investigations by the authorities, “not so independent” inquiries, etc.

Like some proponents of history have said – arguably, history may be written by the victorious and those in power, and thus may be subjective as to how true or false the “information” contained in history at different points in time may be?

If most Singaporeans may be afraid of being sued for talking about so called subjective “false information” – then we may arguably have taken a thousand steps backwards in respect of democracy and freedom of expression – such that questions and the discourse on matters in the public interest and fair comment, may trickle to a drip – and thus arguably, Singapore society may end up to be worse off then it already is today.

Let us get back to the initial question when we started this discussion above – “In this connection, is it arguably, in the public interest and fair comment, to ask for some clarification as to what may constitute as “false information”?”

Let’s try to look at some examples in Singapore’s history to try to have a better understanding of possibly some of the issues – from a “in the public interest and fair comment” perspective.

The Finance Minister in a Parliamentary reply in May 2015 said that only the GIC managed CPF funds. So, why is that in 2007, when MP Low Thia Kiang asked, “I would like to seek clarifications from the Minister. Does the GIC use money derived from CPF to invest?” –

Then Manpower Minister Ng Eng Hen said, “The answer is no”?

And also why did the late former prime minister Lee Kuan Yew say in 2001, when he was the chairman of GIC, that “I want to clarify that there is no direct link between the GIC and the CPF.”. The Straits Times carried an article headlined, “GIC does not use CPF funds: SM Lee”?

Then Minister for Labour and Communications Ong Teng Cheong said in 1982 that, “CPF savings form a large portion of Singapore’s savings. These savings are used for capital formation which means the construction of new factories, installation of new plant and equipment, expansion of infrastructure such as roads,’ ports and telecommunications, the building of houses and so on”. Temasek has an annualised return of about 16% per annum, since its inception. Since state companies like SingTel were arguably built with CPF funds and were transferred to Temasek – is it arguably, categorically and absolutely correct for the Finance Minister to say that “No. It (Temasek) has never managed CPF funds”?

In my opinion, the Government also made some very good arguments and rebuttals from their point of view, as reported in the Straits Times article “Recent case about falsehoods, not harassment, says Govt” (Jan 23) – “The Law Ministry said yesterday that the Workers’ Party (WP) had misrepresented the Government’s position on a law that provides protection against harassment and false statements, after the opposition party suggested that the Government would be changing the law to protect itself from harassment.

In a sharp response, the ministry said: “The Government has never said that it needed protection from harassment. Nor does the Government intend to amend POHA (Protection from Harassment Act) to protect itself from harassment.”

The ministry added: “The Government needs to take steps to protect the public and Singapore’s institutions from the very real dangers posed by the spread of false information. The Government will not shy away from this, whatever may be said wrongly about its intentions and objectives.”

The exchange comes on the back of a recent split decision by the Court of Appeal, which ruled 2-1 that government agencies cannot invoke POHA.

Responding to the court’s decision, the Ministry of Law said last Monday: “The Government will study the judgment, and consider what further steps it should take to correct the deliberate spreading of falsehoods.”

The WP also cited a 1988 case to bolster its point, saying that “the Government at the time disagreed with the court’s ruling and by end-January 1989, had passed retrospective legislation” to change the law. The court had held in the case, Chng Suan Tze v Minister for Home Affairs, that it had a right to review the Government’s discretion in Internal Security Act cases.

The WP added that should the Government react to the court’s judgment by seeking to amend POHA, the party will “vigorously oppose such amendments”.

But the Law Ministry said the WP’s statement was “misconceived and misrepresents the issues and the Government’s aims”.

It said POHA has to do with harassment and false statements. In the recent case, the Government had sought to invoke the legal remedies against false statements, and the apex court had agreed that falsehoods about the Government had indeed been published by TOC and the doctor, said the ministry.

It noted that the court decision on the case was split, with the majority believing that POHA, as currently drafted, did not give the Government the power to require publication of true facts, and the Chief Justice disagreeing with the opinion.”This case thus had nothing to do with harassment. It was about false statements,” the ministry said.

It said the WP should welcome this, “unless (it) sees profit in the dissemination of falsehoods”.”

Leong Sze Hian

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