Former PAP lawmaker Inderjit Singh said that Singapore could be a world leader in the fight against fake news but only if the proposed Protection from Online Falsehoods and Manipulation Act (POFMA) is ‘done right’. Mr Singh served as a Member of Parliament from 1996 – 2015, holding various positions over the course of those years including Chairman of the Government Parliamentary Committee of the Ministries of Finance and Trade and Industry.
In an article he wrote for the South China Morning Post (SCMP) on 1 May, Mr Singh described the introduction of POFMA as “timely” but noted that the government “should not take the concerns raised lightly as the stakes are high and an overreaching law will have long-lasting effects.”
He is of course referring to the various statements and concerns raised by myriad of groups and experts over the overarching powers of POFMA, the vaguely defined provisions, and the impact the law – in its current iteration – would have on the freedom of speech, freedom of the press, and self-censorship.
Make the appeal process simple and free of bias
Going through the concerns point by point, Mr Singh posits several suggestions on how the government can address each concern constructively. On the issue of powers granted to any minister to declare falsehoods, Mr Singh said that it is ‘practical’ for the ministers to make the first judgement as curbing fake news often requires swift action.
However, he acknowledged that the recourse provided for the in the proposed bill is still inadequate. Specifically he said that the requirement that the appeal against a minister’s order must be made to that same minister “makes it quite impossible to avoid the appearance of bias”.
There’s also another issue which many have raised regarding the process of appealing to the courts which people are concerned would not be financially viable for many individuals.
On these, Mr Singh suggested the formation of an independent committee to review the appeal instead of the ministers themselves, which has been suggested by other concerned parties earlier on.
As for the Court process, Mr Singh suggested that the government establish a “fast-track court process” that is easy to understand, quick, and affordable. He said, “This will assure the public that the state takes the legal rights of its citizens seriously.”
He noted Home Affairs and Law Minister K Shanmugam’s assurance that the court process would be “fast and relatively inexpensive”, but added that “the legislation must reflect this”. He suggested that the appeal form should be simple to understand and available online so that Singaporeans could fill it up without the aid of a lawyer. And should legal services be required, Mr Sing suggested that access to legal aid be granted, calling on the Law Society.
More measured punishments
In his article, Mr Singh also addressed the issue on punishments, nothing concerns which have been raised that the harsh punishments “could have a chilling effect on those who may otherwise be willing to express contrarian views on matters of public interest.”
He said, “If the punishment includes heavy fines and jail terms, then this may cause people to not speak out at all, indirectly curtailing the freedom of speech.”
Mr Singh suggested to “not have onerous punishments for first-time offenders” and “implement punishments with a light touch” instead. He noted a balance needs to be struck between “speaking out and the freedom of speech and the cost of spreading fake news”.
As it stands without amendments, “the proposed anti-fake news law would be structured in a manner that is tilted towards creating some fear that may curb freedom of expression”, said Mr Singh.
Consult all stakeholders again
Before POFMA was drafted, a parliamentary committee was set up to seek public input on the issue. Mr Singh commented that a second round of consultation with the public, civil society, academia and all political parties is necessary and would result in a law that is “robust and well-accepted”, adding that the bill could be sent to another parliamentary select committee for further review.
He said, “Hopefully, all parties can get together to take a deeper look at the proposed laws and make practical recommendations. It is wise to take the time to get this far-reaching bill right before it becomes law.”
Mr Singh said that if done right, this is an ideal opportunity for Singapore to take a lead globally in combatting the spread of fake news. However he added, “Done in a wrong way, there is a risk of people losing trust in the government, despite its best intentions in tackling this challenging issue.”
“The government should not take the concerns raised lightly as the stakes are high and an overreaching law will have long-lasting effects,” concluded Mr Singh.