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Law Minister says courts are the ‘final arbiters’ of falsehoods, but netizens argue that it’s more complex than that

The Law and Home Affairs Minister K Shanmugam said earlier on Tuesday (2 April) that the Government will not be the one deciding on what is true and not true, and the final decision will be up to the courts.

He was responding to queries made regarding the Protection from Online Falsehoods and Manipulation Bill (POFMA), which was tabled in Parliament on Monday as a way to combat the spread of false and/or misleading information online.

Some of the measures that the Bill covers include issuing correction direction or, in more serious cases, take-down orders. As such, concerns were raised about the amount of power bestowed to the Government in deciding what is true or false.

“(The) court decides ultimately what is true and what is false and they will be the final arbiters. That is how issues ought to be decided,” he said.

He added, “So it is completely not true to say: ‘Oh, all sorts of opinions will be caught or free speech will be affected or I cannot express viewpoints’, nor is it true to say that Government is going to decide what I can say and what I cannot say.”

As an example, he said that if a person says an allegation which the Government feels to be false, it can intervene to ask for a correction or for it to be taken down altogether. However, if the person still claims that the allegation is true, then it can be brought to the court and be dealt with there.

But he did mention that the Government will be the one who will make the first decision in deciding if a statement is wrong or true. This, according to him, is needed as falsehoods can “travel very far” within a few hours, which could result to “massive consequences”.

Mr Shanmugam also noted that the Bill “doesn’t cover criticism, it doesn’t cover opinions, it doesn’t cover viewpoints.”

This means that, “If you were to say, ‘Government standards are slipping; our Government’s to be blamed for rising inequality; our Government is not giving back my CPF (Central Provident Fund); or Singapore’s policies are elitist; or cost of living is rising; or HDB (Housing and Development Board) prices are too high; or our COE (Certificate of Entitlement) prices are too high; or the ban of events is arbitrary; or human rights in Singapore is being curtailed; or we can’t hold protests in Singapore’, all those are opinions and it doesn’t get caught by this Bill.”

Besides that, it is also not right to say that opinions will be caught under the new laws and freedom of speech in Singapore will be affected, said the minister. He added that the public can express their views on issues on the new laws once it’s introduced.

Upon reading what the ministers had to say, netizens highlighted their disagreements on his statement on CNA’s Facebook page. Many opined that it will be very troubling for a regular citizen to file a case in the court as it will be time consuming and expensive. As such, most people will refrain themselves from criticising or giving out their opinions as they don’t want to be not involved in legal problems.

Others felt that the Government and the Courts are cohort. This means that the Courts will probably give verdict that will favour the Government, in case a legal suit is brought up to them. Also, Leonie R Tan said that “if ministers are allowed to regulate comments made about himself or his department, there is potential for conflicts of interest”.

On the other hand, Danjel Lim questions what happens if the Court proves that “falsehood” is true and the individual has spread the truth? He wants the Minister to make it clear on how will things be settled in such a scenario.