Government must have powers to deal with falsehoods initially and swiftly, not courts: Shanmugam

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Minister for Law K. Shanmugam. (Photo: Parliament screencap)
Minister for Law K. Shanmugam. (Photo: Parliament screencap)

SINGAPORE — The government must have the powers to deal with online falsehoods initially and swiftly, as seeking recourse with the courts cannot be expected to happen within a matter of hours, said Law Minister K. Shanmugam on Wednesday (8 May).

Speaking during the second reading of the Protection from Online Falsehoods and Manipulation Bill, Shanmugam explained to Parliament that getting a duty judge to preside over a case would require some time.

And if the defendant turns up in court, the judge would have a duty to also listen to his or her arguments. “Due process means you must allow them to argue,” he said.

“It is not possible for you, or for me, or for anyone else in this House honestly to say the courts can do this in a matter of hours. That’s just plain wrong. It’s not possible,” said Shanmugam.

The government has said that the court is the final arbiter over a case involving falsehood. An individual or entity who is determined by a minister to be behind a falsehood can challenge the decision in court.

Shanmugam was responding to Workers’ Party chief Pritam Singh, who has suggested that the initial decision-making process on online falsehoods should reside with the courts.

Singh suggested that the courts could issue expedited orders against online falsehoods, similar to interim orders granted under the Protection from Harassment Act.

Shanmugam said, “If anyone in this House says that, you guarantee that, a court will decide every single time in a matter of hours when you need it, you’re not telling the truth. And I will look you in the eye. The courts will tell you that’s not possible.”

Under the draft law, a minister can order or direct an individual to issue a correction alongside content deemed false, or to take down the content.

The law will also give ministers the power to direct online sites such as Facebook, Google and Twitter to put warnings next to posts that are deemed false.

The government has said that the new law will help Singapore guard against malicious actors who knowingly spread harmful falsehoods and act against public interest.

But the draft law has triggered widespread concerns including on the definition of what constitutes a falsehood, the powers to be given to individual ministers to deal with falsehood, and the potentially adverse impact it would have on free speech.

When a minister determines an individual behind a falsehood and issues an order, the latter has to comply first. The individual can choose to apply to the minister to cancel the order.

The minister would have up to two days to make a decision after receiving an application by an individual against his or her direction.

If the minister decides not to accede, the individual would have up to 14 days to file an appeal with the High Court.

The court would have to hear the appeal within six days after it is filed.

The detailed procedure for challenging a minister’s decision will be spelled out in subsidiary legislation, which is expected to be filed after the primary legislation is passed.

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