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Executive arm of Govt should not be arbiter of what constitutes falsehoods: WP chief Pritam Singh

The executive arm of Government, particularly Ministers, should not be given the “remarkable leeway” to determine what constitutes false statements of fact”, said Workers’ Party (WP) secretary-general Pritam Singh.

Mr Singh told the House on Tue (May 7) during a debate on the controversial bill that consequently, on the above basis, WP rejects the Protection from Online Falsehoods and Manipulation Bill.

Citing a clause in POFMA which stipulates that the Government may declare a statement to be false if it considers such to be misleading, whether partially or wholly, he said: “In public understanding, this clause gives broad latitude to the Executive to clamp down on what it deems to be even misleading statements which may not be false per se.”

Mr Singh argued that what the Government deems to be offensive, misleading, or in contravention to “public interest” might be understood or defined differently by others.

“While the Government must legitimately be able to apply to shut down malicious actors, a court order should legitimise the action that needs to be undertaken,” he added.

Mr Singh also drew attention to concerns raised by individuals and other entities in their submissions to the Select Committee on Deliberate Online Falsehoods last year, highlighting that the broad scope of powers granted upon Ministers has been one of the strongest points of contention against the Bill since it was first drafted.

Quoting the Select Committee’s report, he highlighted: “There was concern that Executive action could feed fears over the abuse of power […] It was also pointed out that Executive directions would not be able to deal with falsehoods spread by the Executive”.

While Mr Singh acknowledged that urgency and speed in correcting and removing false statements online are the primary reason for vesting broad scope of powers into Ministers and their relevant Competent Authority under POFMA, he argued that granting such power comes with the risk of an “unchecked Executive”.

“On its part, the Executive will act in some cases of falsehoods, and it other cases, it will not. In both scenarios, questions will be asked why the Executive acted as such.

“Suspicions will be raised and perceptions formed. Politicisation would be inevitable,” he added, particularly in reference to the heightened possibility of the spread of “fake news” during elections and other significant events.

The judiciary, an independent council or ombudsman and self-regulation within media firms, noted Mr Singh, were three alternatives to the anti-fake news legislation that were proposed to the Executive.

New provisions under the Protection from Harassment Act, as well as remedies under civil law, can also be employed in dealing with online falsehoods, argued Mr Singh.

“I believe there is scope to introduce processes involving duty judges to deal with an urgent application from the Government speedily or at very short notice,” he said, particularly given that “the meaning of a falsehood is identical under both Poha and the Bill”.