No need for independent body to assess falsehoods, Parliament is accountable: Shanmugam

(Getty Images file photo)
(Getty Images file photo)

SINGAPORE — All functions of an independent council to tackle falsehoods can be achieved under the current structure of the executive in Parliament, Law and Home Affairs Minister K Shanmugam said on Tuesday (7 May), amid calls by various segments of society for its creation.

Speaking in Parliament, Shanmugam noted that the proposal for such a council ensures that conversations take place on the nature of falsehoods as well as the implementation of the Protection from Online Falsehoods and Manipulation Bill (POFMA).

“The government agrees that these conversations should continue, the question is, is establishing another council the best way? And would it lead to unnecessary bureaucratic bloat?” said Shanmugam in his opening speech for the Bill’s second reading.

Shanmugam stressed that every major issue - from the recent furore over a sexual misconduct case which occurred at the National University of Singapore (NUS) to other areas - is raised immediately in Parliament with answers given.

“The Singapore public must know this institution works and if there is a question, it will be answered and that’s got to be trust as well and where the trust is not merited, that’s got to be exposed as well,” said Shanmugam.

“You don’t keep creating bodies and then who checks on them?” he added.

It is more effective to rely on the strength of the existing institutions as there is direct accountability, the minister argued.

“So you have the parliament and the courts, what more do you want?” Shanmugam said.

“Any time there is a question, it can be challenged in court, it can be challenged in Parliament. You keep getting it wrong, the electorate will have something to say about it,” he added.

Call for independent body from various parties

In the wake of the impending legislation, the proposed Bill has attracted criticisms that it will infringe on human rights, particularly freedom of speech and media freedom.

The Bill grants the government powers to act against online falsehoods created by “malicious actors”, so as to protect public interest.

According to the Bill, “a statement is false if it is false or misleading, whether wholly or in part, and whether on its own or in the context in which it appears”. It does not cover criticism, opinions, satire, and parody, according to the government.

Proposed sanctions under the Bill include fines of between $30,000 and $1 million, and/or up to 10 years’ jail. The penalties could be doubled if the falsehood will, or is likely to, impact public interest as defined in the law.

Nominated Members of Parliament (NMPs), civil groups, journalists and others have called for an independent body to deal with the issue of falsehoods.

The council should monitor online falsehoods and provide oversight on the use of executive powers under POFMA, said NMPs Anthea Ong, Irene Quay and Associate Professor Walter Theseira last Wednesday in a joint statement.

It should comprise members who are appointed by a Select Committee of Parliament, they added.

In Parliament on Monday, Quay noted that the the council will be “pertinent if actions will be taken against individuals or small groups of people compared to large tele-media companies, whose access to resources provide greater efficacy for recourse in court”.

“It will clearly add much needed integrity to our entire political system,” she added.

Conferring ministers with executive powers to issue correctional orders and take down notices would also result in the “characteristic dilemma of ‘who watches the watchers’”, said Quay.

“If fake news originates from a ministry itself, who then decides to have that ministry take it down?” she added.

In a recent survey commissioned by Yahoo News Singapore, 83 per cent of 889 Singaporeans believe that an independent body to review reported cases of deliberate online falsehoods would be a better alternative than leaving the assessment to ministers.

Such an independent body can comprise government representatives, community leaders, media personnel and legal professionals serving as “deciders of disinformation” whose decisions would be settled by the courts before any corrective actions are to be taken, said several media practitioners in a joint statement expressing their concerns over POFMA last month.

Last Thursday, Facebook announced that it will expand its third-party fact-checking programme in Asia Pacific to Singapore, in partnership with international news agency Agence France-Presse (AFP).

“We believe that with this fact-checking programme, we can help build a more informed community in Singapore and look forward to exploring more opportunities to expand this programme locally,” said the social media giant.

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