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Three NMPs express concerns over fake news bill, propose amendments

From left to right: Nominated Members of Parliament Anthea Ong, Irene Quay, and Walter Theseira. (PHOTOS: parliament.gov.sg)
From left to right: Nominated Members of Parliament Anthea Ong, Irene Quay, and Walter Theseira. (PHOTOS: parliament.gov.sg)

SINGAPORE — Three Nominated Members of Parliament (NMPs), Anthea Ong, Irene Quay and Associate Professor Walter Theseira, have expressed concerns over the fake news bill and proposed amendments to bolster its “legislative intent”.

In a joint statement, the NMPs agreed with the broad aim of the law as online falsehoods could harm public interest even when there is no ill intent.

To be tabled for a second reading in Parliament next Monday (6 May), the Protection against Online Falsehoods and Manipulation Bill has triggered widespread concerns including on the sweeping definition of what constitutes a falsehood, the extensive powers to be given to individual ministers to deal with falsehoods, and the potentially adverse impact it would have on free speech in Singapore.

The proposed amendments by the NMPs will be discussed at the parliamentary session on Monday.

In their statement, the NMPs noted that many in Singapore and globally are concerned that the Bill grants the government far-reaching powers to curb online communication.

“We share these concerns, as such tools could be used by the Executive and future governments to suppress or chill debate and expression for political purposes,” said Ong, Quay and Assoc Prof Theseira.

The NMPs noted that the government has given assurances that the Bill is not intended to stifle or chill free speech, debate and criticism. The Bill, however, does not contain these assurances that limit how the powers outlined in it can be used, they said.

Moreover, the Bill contains “broadly worded clauses” on what is a false statement and what constitutes public interest.

Under 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.”

The broad meaning of “public interest” includes a reference to the purposes of the Act “to prevent a diminution of public confidence in the performance of any duty or function of, or in the exercise of any power by, the Government, an Organ of State, a statutory board, or a part of the Government, an Organ of State or a statutory board.”

The NMPs said, “We are concerned that these broadly worded clauses give the Executive considerable discretion to take action against online communications, without protection in the primary legislation that codifies the assurances given by the Government in explaining the Bill to the public.”

Hence, the NMPs proposed four amendments to the Bill after consulting various stakeholders.

Among them, they suggested a clause that outlines key Principles to guide the exercise of powers under the Act such that it is “targeted at statements that are ​materially false and ​not opinions, comments, critiques, satire, parody, generalisations or statements of experiences.”

They also proposed that any directions issued under the Act are “publicly justified”. In addition, they called for the appeals process to be expedited.

The NMPs also said there should be an independent Council to monitor online falsehoods and provide oversight on the use of executive powers under the Act. The Council should comprise members who are appointed by a Select Committee of Parliament.

The Principles of the Act codify some of the explicit assurances that the government has given over the past few weeks, the NMPs said. They also reflect the concerns of about the potentially adverse impact on criticism and research.

“The Principles of Act states that well-informed, free, and critical speech is necessary for a well-functioning democracy, so the Act should be applied carefully to avoid chilling such speech.”

The NMPs noted the concerns regarding the sections in the Bill on the definition of a statement of fact and “public confidence” in the government as part of the public interest. They said these concerns are best dealt with reference to the Principles of the Act proposed by them.

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