Anti-fake news laws must not silence whistleblowers

Protesters displaying a sign referring to "Fake News" in Washington, during the Women’s March on Jan 21, 2017.
Protesters displaying a sign referring to "Fake News" in Washington, during the Women’s March on Jan 21, 2017.PHOTO: AFP

It is widely acknowledged that the raising of concerns, sometimes referred to as whistleblowing, has the ability to expose misconduct, allowing the authorities to stop the violation, limit the damage and bring people to account.

Conversely, the absence of an effective channel to raise concerns has allowed corrupt and dishonest schemes to be perpetuated over long periods of time.

While law enforcement agencies and corporate compliance programmes emphasise the importance of people coming forward to raise concerns, it remains the case that Singapore does not have any overarching legislation protecting whistleblowers against retaliation.

There may be specific protections relating to the anonymity of informants but they are restricted in scope.

Moreover, Singapore has tough defamation laws which could be used to stifle expressions of concern.

In certain cases, persons who raised concerns about misconduct were threatened with defamation lawsuits and forced to publicly apologise, only to be vindicated later.

In the context of fake news, it can be easy for those accused of misconduct to dismiss those criticisms as being false (Committee to tackle fake news seeks public views; Jan 17).

If measures are put in place to target those who peddle falsehoods, it would be equally, if not more, important to ensure that such measures do not inadvertently silence people who wish to raise genuine concerns, or worse, be used as tools to retaliate against them.

In certain cases, persons who raised concerns about misconduct were threatened with defamation lawsuits and forced to publicly apologise... In the context of fake news, it can be easy for those accused of misconduct to dismiss those criticisms as being false.

Instead, legislation should be enacted to protect those who genuinely raise concerns based on reasonable grounds.

Such legislation should also modify the state of defamation and confidentiality laws such that the expression of genuine concerns - even if they are prima facie defamatory in nature or potentially in breach of confidence - is protected from legal liability by qualified privilege.

This should be in place alongside laws to strengthen our anti-bribery regime and efforts to put in place corporate compliance programmes.

Ang Chin Chye

A version of this article appeared in the print edition of The Straits Times on January 25, 2018, with the headline 'Anti-fake news laws must not silence whistleblowers'. Print Edition | Subscribe