Government will likely rely on technicalities in enforcing the proposed Fake News Bill

Back in July 2015, TOC published a letter written by a ‘concerned Singaporean’ titled “Severe consequences for a PAP majority with its underground city for 10m population”. The letter addressed concerns over the administration’s plan to build an underground city to accommodate Singapore’s ever growing population.

But shortly after publishing the article, TOC received a letter from the Attorney General’s Chamber which demanded the article be taken down, threatening legal action against the site should the order not be complied. The AGC denied the claim made in the article that there was a plan to build an underground city in Singapore.

It said that the author of the letter made a “patently false statement, namely that monies raised from the issuance of Singapore Savings Bonds will be used to finance the construction of an underground city for a population of 10 million”.

At the time, it was the second time in about seven months that the AGC had used the Protection from Harrasment Act (PHA) against TOC – the previous account happened in February 2015 when it was demanded that an article about MINDEF be taken down as it was considered harassment of the ministry.

In the AGC’s letter to TOC regarding the article about plans for an underground city, the AGC said “There is no plan to build an underground city or underground residential developments to accommodate a ’10 million population’”, saying it was regrettable that TOC “did not check with the Ministry of National Development before publishing the article”.

It then demanded that TOC “either remove the said article, or you include the notice set out in Annex A to this letter as a preface to the said article.”

The AGC letter, signed by State Counsel Hui Choon Kuen, threatened that if TOC did not comply “with this request by 6pm today, these Chambers will have no choice but to take out an application under Section 15 of the Protection from Harassment Act 2014 to obtain an appropriate court order restraining further publication of this false statement without making clear the truth.”

TOC opted to insert the notice into the original article as the AGC had demanded.

Subsequently, after one and a half year of legal battle, the Court of Appeal ruled that Singapore Government is not deemed as a “person” under the section 15 of the POHA and therefore, unable to use the act.

Fast forward a few years, the Singapore government released plans to build underground infrastructures below its existing land and buildings in order to maximise space.

According to the master development plan put out by the Urban Redevelopment Authority (URA) on March 27, it now includes an additional mention of underground infrastructure which wasn’t there in the earlier 2014 master plan.

The underground structures being planned are slated to be constructed in the Central Business District, Jurong Innovation District and Punggol Digital District with the deepest structure going down to 15 metres below surface level.

So, it appears that the article TOC published wasn’t completely off-base back in 2015 about a proposed underground city, just that there is no residence space built underground – yet.

Surely, the plan didn’t appear out of thin air and took some time to be worked out in detail before being released to the public by the URA in the Master Plan 2019.

The government had the facts. Yet it still claimed back in 2015 that TOC’s article was “patently false” and demanded it be taken down or carry a notice informing readers that the information is false. They crafted the claim of ‘fake news’ using mere technicality but really, the article was barely a few steps away from the actual fact of the government’s development underground.

While speaking at a forum at the Singapore Management University on 3 April 2019, Senior Minister of State for Law Edwin Tong agreed that concerns over the cost of appealing against the governments correction order under this new bill and how it might be prohibitive were ‘fair’. However, he did say that the bar is not set very high for someone to prove that the statement they made was based on facts.

He said, “What is the question that has to be resolved between me and the judge as a publisher? I just have to show that what I wrote is true. That cannot be a very difficult or high bar… If I wrote it, I must have had a basis for writing it in the first place.”

The Protection From Online Falsehoods and Manipulation Act (POFMA) is being introduced as a means to curb the spread of misleading information and falsehoods and the government, Mr Tong assured the public that the bill is targeted at falsehoods, not free speech.

But doesn’t this ‘underground city’ story illustrate rather clearly what the government would do if this fake news law is implemented?

With the new law, almost truths will become absolute falsehood and the half-truths will become the absolute truth.

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