Academic Cherian George urges caution in drafting new laws to tackle online untruths, calls for repeal of insult law

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Professor of media studies at the Hong Kong Baptist University, Dr Cherian George, said that legislation against hateful expression can backfire at times. He called for the repeal of Singapore's insult law - Section 298 of the Penal Code.

SINGAPORE - Hateful expression warrants a firm response, but not always with criminal law, said academic Cherian George.

If used in the wrong circumstances, this law can be counter-productive and could be weaponised by political opportunists, he added at a public hearing on deliberate online falsehoods on Tuesday (March 27).

In making these points, Dr George said hateful expression that incites discrimination has to be distinguished from mere insult and offence.

He called for the repeal of Singapore's insult law - Section 298 of the Penal Code.

The professor of media studies at Hong Kong Baptist University added that any new laws should be carefully written so that they help the Government keep up with the dissemination of hateful expression and falsehoods via new technologies.

He cautioned against using laws to create new classes of illegal speech which were previously not illegal.

There is a growing consensus among experts around the world that insult laws that prohibit expressions which wound the feelings of religious or racial groups tend to backfire, he told the Select Committee.

Such laws tend to be used by the most intolerant groups in society, to accuse more moderate and minority groups of causing offence, and then to call on the state to penalise the minority group, he noted.

While this has not yet happened in Singapore, Dr George warned that Singapore cannot assume that it never will.

"I fear that when dealing with hate propaganda… our policy thinking in fact is not as sharp as it should be, because we've not had to deal with the kind of threats our neighbours face," he said. "I do see the possibility of more serious hate propaganda efforts that.. so far we are unfamiliar with. So we need to look at the best thinking outside Singapore, among experts and policymakers that have been dealing with this for years."

While urging caution in enacting new laws, Dr George also made clear he believes laws have a place in fighting falsehoods and hateful expression.

"I would say that if today a politician or preacher stands up and says our country has no room for (a particular) community. That's not the time to distribute media literacy booklets. Throw the book at him. The law is sometimes the first resort when it comes to incitement," he said.

He urged the committee to focus on "upstream", long-term measures such as media literacy and civic literacy education, to ensure that citizens can critically evaluate information and are not vulnerable to intolerant, populist views.

In discussing his suggestion to repeal Singapore's insult law, Dr George said: "I understand that it is so controversial, I don't expect you to follow it."

He later added that he was not "being facetious" when he said he did not expect the select committee to recommend the repeal of Section 298.

He then said: "I do in all sincerity hope that over the long term the competent authorities... will in fact look deeply into whether this law needs to be tweaked, considering that even in the country we inherited this law from (India), there are experts who have pointed out for years that it does not work."

Select committee member Janil Puthucheary noted that the absence of such a law would not prevent someone from weaponising such issues.

Dr Janil also argued that having having such a law ensures that states can take action early against hateful expression, and not only act when it is too late, such as when violence has broken out.

Dr George agreed while that may be the case, political opportunists can use the law to demand that the state take action against groups that they disagree with.

"Don't make the mistake of policing people's feelings because you assume people would use it in good faith but the truth is there are people who won't use that law in good faith," he said.

Weighing in, Home Affairs and Law Minister K. Shanmugam said while the law cannot be a complete solution to fighting online falsehoods and hateful expression, having a solid legal framework is necessary.

He added that a multi-faceted approach is needed to deal with the "very significant" challenges posed by online untruths.

"It has got to include a substantial amount of media literacy education,an approach of bringing to the people a much better understanding of risks and the ability to understand what is true and false. But underpinned by a legal framework that gives the necessary powers to intervene," the minister said.

He added that Section 298 should be seen within the broader context of Singapore's other laws that aim to maintain religious and racial harmony.

Furthermore, the law is not the Government's first "port of call", Mr Shanmugam said.

Instead, the Government will first gather religious leaders and hold discussions before resorting to invoking the law.

"The framework of laws that surround what can and cannot be said about another race or religion... thankfully we have come to a position today where we don't have to invoke them very much. That's good. We don't need to, but the very fact that we can invoke them I think has a salutary effect on a lot of people," Mr Shanmugam said.

"We want to make sure we have right legal framework. If comments were made and they were hurtful then we want to make sure we can take action."

The Government will look at Dr George's views and whether repealing Section 298 would weaken the legal framework, Mr Shanmugam said.

In his written submission to the committee, Dr George also warned that the disproportionate attention being paid to social media's role in the dissemination of hate expression and falsehoods can be counter-productive.

"Hate propagandists use the Internet when it suits them, but they would not be helpless without it," he noted.

Face-to-face communication in places of worship and study groups probably play a much bigger role than online messages in fostering religious intolerance, he said.

In many countries, long-established radio talk shows and cable television news programmes do more to create intolerant echo chambers and filter bubbles than social media, he added.

And so the disproportionate attention to social media places undue faith in techno-legal solutions and diverts attention from potentially more impactful policy responses, he said.

Singapore has time to focus more on prevention, especially through civic education, as its political parties are avowedly multi-racial and multi-religious and the Government is still widely viewed as an honest broker in racial and religious tensions, he said.

Nurturing a society that is more resistant to intolerant populist appeals is the strongest guarantee against hate campaigns, he added.

Dr George also suggested setting up hate watch groups that monitor and name and shame groups that spread hate expression, as well as independent fact-checking groups that can complement the work of the media.

Public hearings to fight online falsehoods: Read the submissions here and watch more videos.

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