Legislation against online falsehoods should not be so broad that it endangers the work of journalists, says SPH

Any legislation introduced to counter online falsehoods should not be so broad and sweeping that it chills the legitimate sharing of information and endangers the work of journalists, said SPH English/Malay/Tamil Media Group editor Warren Fernandez.

SINGAPORE - Any legislation introduced to counter online falsehoods should not be so broad and sweeping that it chills the legitimate sharing of information and endangers the work of journalists, said Singapore Press Holdings (SPH) English/Malay/Tamil Media Group editor-in-chief Warren Fernandez.

While the media group believes that laws and regulations here should be updated to keep online falsehoods in check, editors in the group naturally have concerns about any new legislation, especially without knowing what form it will take, he added.

Mr Fernandez, who is also editor of The Straits Times, suggested that the law should take a nuanced approach that differentiates between deliberate and inadvertent spread of falsehoods, and takes into account the impact of the action.

Otherwise, "people may be... afraid to offer up information", he said, adding that this could impinge on the work of journalists. "This is a concern for many people in the public, not just a concern of journalists."

Mr Fernandez said the news gathering process is not a straightforward one, and involves information coming in dribs and drabs. Journalists and editors then have to verify the information and put the pieces together.

If the Government plans to put in place new legislation, he added, it should focus on the spectrum of false news which has to do with deliberate online falsehoods.

The Select Committee tasked to look into the problem heard from editors of SPH and Channel NewsAsia on Friday (March 23) as well as other media players.

 
 
 

SPH had proposed legislation for online content distributors as one of the possible solutions to the false news problem.

Mr Fernandez said existing laws which can be used to tackle untruths are mostly limited to content creators and providers.

"Please focus your energies on ensuring a level playing field between us and distributors of content which should be held responsible for content they spread," he added.

During the hearings, the editors were also asked about their views on freedom of the press and censorship. Committee member and Nominated MP Chia Yong Yong asked what would constitute constraints on that freedom.

Mr Fernandez said journalists hold freedom of the press dearly, and are legitimately concerned about any attempts to constrain it.

But they also understand that the freedom is not absolute as there are other freedoms that need to be safeguarded. In Singapore, for instance, race and religion are sensitive issues, and Singaporeans would expect media outlets to help maintain societal harmony.

Citing the example of cartoons on the Prophet published in some other countries, Mr Fernandez said media outlets in Singapore would not be willing to publish them.

"We would exercise our own judgment in how we would apply the freedom in that situation," he said.

Making such editorial judgments, however, is about exercising responsibility and not the same as self-censorship, he added, saying that journalists take feedback from many sources, including their newsmakers and readers, to inform their judgments.

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