Leon Perera and Walter Theseira fear fake news law could be abused by future government

Workers' Party NCMP Leon Perera (left) and NMP Walter Theseira. (PHOTOS:
Workers' Party NCMP Leon Perera (left) and NMP Walter Theseira. (PHOTOS:

SINGAPORE — A future rogue government could exercise the powers under the fake news law to stifle criticism or perpetuate fear, said Workers' Party Non-Constituency Member of Parliament (NCMP) Leon Perera on Wednesday (8 May).

It could also “entrench itself in power” and “exploit the reluctance of many Singaporeans to sue the government in court to its advantage”, said the opposition politician during the second reading of the Protection from Online Falsehoods and Manipulation Bill (POFMA) in Parliament.

A post-POFMA era will allow “ministers and government spokespersons (to) say what they want, including misleading statements with a partisan political character”, as they are not subjected to the “broad strictures” of the law, he added.

“Is vesting powers this broad in the government of the day from now till this law is repealed...the responsible thing to do for future generations of Singaporeans?” said Perera.

He quoted Law and Home Affairs Minister K Shanmugam, who when asked about the possibility of a future rogue government abusing POFMA in a recent interview with local broadcaster CNA, said, “I cannot vouch for how a future government will act.”

While a rogue government or minister can be held to account in elections if they were to abuse the law, Perera pointed out that they could wield powers under POFMA to stop voters from learning negative information about their actions.

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. It does not cover criticism, opinions, satire, and parody, according to the government.

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.

“The powers can be used to partly insulate against electoral accountability. To say Parliament is a check against abuse is neither here nor there - the abuse may affect the composition of Parliament itself,” said Perera.

Burden of proof not on government

This, along with severe penalties and the wide definition of “misleading facts” will “chill free speech”, he noted, despite the government’s assurance that the “primary” remedy under the law would be correction or take down orders.

Proposed sanctions under the Bill include fines of between $30,000 and $1 million, and/or up to 10 years’ jail.

“Many citizens will not have the stomach to risk a correction order or a criminal charge even if they are confident about their facts, as many will not want to take on the effort, time, cost and risk entailed by a legal appeal, let alone a full-blown judicial review action,” said Perera.

“Under POFMA the burden of proof falls on the person saying something, not the government for saying that something was false. Many will choose not to take up that burden and simply not speak up.”

To combat this, Perera called for a public interest defence to be included in POFMA.

It would ensure that when a statement deemed “false” under POFMA, may not be considered an offence - or be under a smaller class of offences carrying smaller penalties - “if made in good faith, using a defensible investigative process and to serve the greater public interest”, he added.

The relevance of Galileo Galilei’s persecution

In his speech on Tuesday, Shanmugam argued that “public infrastructure of truth itself provides society with a shared reality” and public discourse can only take place when there is free and responsible speech.

Nominated Member of Parliament (NMP) Associate Professor Walter Theseira on Wednesday noted in his speech that a good government must act to defend this “shared reality” to best serve public interest.

He added, however, even a good government may face the “temptation to gradually conflate the public interest with their own political gain” and that its judgments about what constitutes this “shared reality” are “inherently political acts”.

“I do not mean they are always partisan acts, carried out for narrow political gain,” he said. “But they are political acts because they must serve the definition of public interest that the government of the day believes in.”

To illustrate his point, Prof Theseira cited the example of Italian astronomer Galileo Galilei, who was put on trial by the Roman Inquisition of the Catholic Church for supporting the theory that the Earth and other planets revolve around the Sun - one that is accepted as fact now.

The Inquisition had found his evidence “fundamentally incompatible” with passages in the Bible, of which the judges interpreted as “a matter of fact”, he said.

“It may be with the best of intentions, as when a good government believes the public interest demands the suppression of all competing ideologies,” noted Prof Theseira.

“But as with Galileo, these good intentions may eventually lead a good government to ignore reality.”

‘Matter of policy and of conscience’

Prof Theseira, along with fellow NMPs Anthea Ong and Irene Quay had in a joint statement last Wednesday called for several amendments to the Bill.

Among their suggestions, a clause that outlines key Principles to guide the exercise of powers under the Act as well as an independent council to monitor online falsehoods and provide oversight on the use of executive powers under the Act.

While all three NMPs agreed with the legislative intent to curb online falsehoods, they expressed difficulty in supporting the final passage of the bill.

Prof Theseria said he finds it difficult to support the law wholly unless he is satisfied it “contains strong protections against abuse by an unjust future government”.

“I understand why members of the government may not share my reservations. I accept they have great confidence that their present good governance will continue,” he said.

“But for me, this is a matter of policy and of conscience.”

Likewise, Perera stressed that the problem of fake news requires “a surgical tool welded by objective, non-conflicted surgeons”.

But the Bill is not a carefully crafted tool, he said.

“It is a blunt weapon handed to a conflicted surgeon, able to cause a great deal of collateral damage to the democratic body politic in this country.” he added.

“The Bill as it stands needs a radical overhaul, not just minor tweaks.”

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