SINGAPORE - To combat the problem of deliberate online falsehoods, an independent fact-checking body could be set up, Singapore Press Holdings (SPH) and Channel NewsAsia (CNA) have suggested to a parliamentary committee looking into the problem.
The fact-checking body should include media players and industry practitioners, and sit independently from government bodies and commercial entities, said SPH, adding it is open to joining such an alliance and working with other media organisations to set this up.
CNA said the mandate of such a body "must include identifying a DOF (deliberate online falsehood) and thereafter recommending appropriate remedial actions".
The two media companies made the suggestions in their written proposals to the Select Committee on deliberate online falsehoods before their representatives appeared before the committee on Friday (March 23) at a public hearing.
SPH was represented by Mr Warren Fernandez, editor-in-chief of its English/Malay/Tamil Media Group and editor of The Straits Times, Mr Goh Sin Teck, editor of Lianhe Zaobao and Lianhe Wanbao, and Mr Mohamed Sa'at Abdul Rahman, editor of Berita Harian. CNA was represented by Mr Walter Fernandez, editor-in-chief of Mediacorp, and Mr Jaime Ho, chief editor of digital news at CNA.
In its written submission, SPH also raised concerns over whether potential legislation to tackle fake news may result in restrictions on free speech. For instance, media reports reflecting public opinion that may not be favourable to government policies or measures, or to prominent political figures, should not be construed as malicious falsehoods against the public interest, as is currently the case in some jurisdictions, it noted.
"Such interpretations could lead to fears among citizens about freely expressing their opinions or engaging in robust and constructive debates, or even to self-censorship by news outlets wary of falling foul of the law," said SPH.
Should there be a need for new or amended legislation, these should focus on the "relatively unregulated" sphere of online content distributors, rather than content producers, both offline and online, who are already subjected to laws such as the Sedition Act, the Protection from Harassment Act, and the Broadcasting Act, which automatically class-licenses Internet content providers, said SPH.
The proposed legislation should also consider how a distinction between "a deliberate intent to mislead and a difference in opinion or interpretation" can be drawn, and how a creator and distributor of a report that is labelled as fake news can address or appeal against such allegations, added SPH.
"Legislation that restricts the investigative and reporting power of the media would hit the wrong target, as newsrooms already have rigorous and effective mechanisms to check and counter falsehoods. It might also inadvertently curb the media's ability to fulfil its critical role in informing society, or to remain credible in the eyes of its readers," it added.
Taking this into account, the Select Committee can consider measures that will require online platforms such as Facebook, Facebook, Google, WeChat, WhatsApp, Snapchat, YouTube and Twitter to take responsibility for the content they publish and promote, and operate on a level playing field with mainstream media organisations, said SPH.
They should be required to act faster when falsehoods spread on their platforms, and to disclose the identities of creators of deliberate falsehoods, SPH added.
Legislation may also compel social networks and media websites with a significant reach to create a monitoring or complaints mechanism that will allow them to be quickly alerted to fake, offending or prohibited content, added the media company. They should be required to remove such content within a "short but reasonable timeframe", and be subjected to an "impactful fine" for any failure to do so.
Said SPH: "Even when online platforms take steps towards self-regulation, they may not be able to rein in their users... Given that falsehoods can sometimes proliferate faster than they can be taken down, prevention - through increased media literacy and deterrence stemming from legislation - is better than any cure."