Civil society activists criticise public hearings by Select Committee on deliberate online falsehoods

Research fellow Thum Ping Tjin speaking at the Select Committee hearings on deliberate online falsehoods on March 29, 2018. PHOTO: GOV.SG

SINGAPORE - A group of civil society activists released a signed statement on Monday (April 2) criticising the way a parliamentary committee conducted public hearings over deliberate online falsehoods in recent weeks.

The signatories are non-governmental organisation Community Action Network, civil society group Function 8, historian Thum Ping Tjin, freelance journalist Kirsten Han and The Online Citizen's chief editor Terry Xu.

Among their concerns were that the hearings did not seem consultative, with committee members appearing uninterested in soliciting witnesses' views, and that some evidence given during the hearings had been "misrepresented" in summaries put up on the Parliament website.

Dr Thum, Ms Han and Mr Xu had appeared before the committee as witnesses last week.

Noting that Dr Thum was grilled for six hours last Thursday over his academic work but found himself unable to address his recommendations on how to combat online falsehoods during his hearing, the activists called sessions "hardly open or consultative".

Their statement also said that "numerous leading questions were asked" and that members of the Select Committee "repeatedly insisted on yes or no answers... despite repeatedly being told of the importance of context and nuance".

They flagged how civil rights activist Jolovan Wham waited for hours before his session on behalf of the Community Action Network, but was questioned for less than 10 minutes and thus unable to expand on his written submission as well.

Ms Han, Mr Wham and Mr Xu have also lodged complaints on the way their submissions were represented summaries provided on the Parliament website - although the summaries have yet to be amended.

Asked about similar concerns raised by critics who said the hearings of the past month resembled a "cross-examination" more than a public consultation, committee member Seah Kian Peng earlier told The Straits Times that it has to clarify witnesses' views in their submissions, along with their recommendations and conclusions.

"It is for the committee to seek these clarifications and some of the questions require a 'yes' or 'no' answer," he said.

When asked about the summaries, Mr Seah said the committee is looking into the feedback and has no intention of delaying its response. He added: "If we think we need to make a change, we will."

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

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