Intent matters, says Law and Home Affairs Minister K Shanmugam when it comes to spreading false news. Speaking to The Straits Times, Mr Shanmugam said that only those who deliberately fabricated news and spread falsehoods are liable to face criminal charges under the proposed Protection from Online Falsehoods and Manipulation Act (POFMA).
He added that those who spread fake news without knowing the truth will have nothing to fear. Also, those who start something based on a misunderstanding will not face penalties either.
Mr Shanmugan said that there might be just one person who deliberately publishes the falsehood online which then thousands of others might spread. However, ‘the bill doesn’t seek to impose criminal penalties on the thousands who spread the original post’ said Mr Shanmugan, adding that many do so without knowing the truth. These people need not be concerned, he emphasised.
In order to determine the intent behind a statement that is deemed as a falsehood or is misleading, the police will look at objective facts, circumstances and context, says Senior Minister of State for Law Edwin Tong. He noted that if necessary, the police will refer the case to the Attorney General’s Chamber which will then decide whether to prosecute or not.
So if intent matters and, as Minister Shamugam said, if people who share a ‘false statement’ without knowing that it was false need not be concerned, why is Leong Sze Hian being sued by the Prime Minister?
Yes, the case between Mr Lee and Mr Leong is a civil suit between two persons, not involving the government. However, the circumstances of the case are pertinent.
Mr Lee has brought a defamation suit against Mr Leong for sharing an article by Malaysian based news site The Coverage on his personal Facebook timeline. The article, titled “Breaking news: Singapore Lee Hsien Loong Becomes 1MDB Key Investigation Target – Najib Signed Several Unfair Agreements with Hsien Loong In Exchange For Money Laundering” alleged that Mr Lee has entered “several unfair agreements” with Malaysia’s former premier Najib Razak.
Mr Leong has shared the article on 7 November 2018 on his Facebook page without any accompanying text. Mr Leong subsequently removed his post on 10 November upon receiving a notice of removal from the Info-communications Media Development Authority (IMDA) on 9 Nov. At the time of removal, Mr Leong’s post had received 22 reactions, five comments, and 18 shares.
However, Mr Lee then filed a writ of summons against Mr Leong on the grounds that the offending article created the “false and baseless” impression that Mr Lee had misused his position as Prime Minister to assist Mr Najib’s money laundering activities in relation to 1MDB’s funds.
Now, Mr Leong wasn’t the one who wrote the article nor did he write a comment when sharing the article. He was merely one person, among many others, who shared it on social media. In fact, when ordered to remove the post, Mr Leong did so promptly.
And yet, Mr Lee persists with the defamation suit against Mr Leong, not the others who had also shared the post nor is he going after the person who actually wrote the article in the first place.
Next we look back at the bill which allows any Minister to use the powers vested in the proposed law to issue correction and takedown orders.
According to the proposed law, it is an offence for any person to perform an act in or outside in order to communicate in Singapore a statement of falsehoods or whatever covered in the subsection. The term “Knowing or having reason to believe” is very contentious because one would have to argue how he or she would find it believable that the statement of fact is true if the communication is faulted upon.
We can see from the bill that the definition of communicate is a communication to one or more end-user in Singapore on or through the internet. And it is also covered for communication through MMS and SMS.
Meaning that sharing of posts and even writing, sharing of an article to your friend on WhatsApp or Facebook can be considered an offence if the Minister so wish to pursue the matter.
So what does these tell us about how POFMA might be used by the Ministers if it is passed into law? Are internet users who share articles without knowing for a fact that the article is 100% truthful be spared as Mr Shanmugam said they would? Will Mr Shanmugam put what he has said into law instead of making empty promises outside of Parliament?