Select Committee hearings on fake news

Two clear themes emerge, says Charles Chong

PHOTO: GOV.SG

Importance of free speech, need for new laws come to the fore, notes committee chairman

Two recurring themes have emerged during the eight days of public hearings by the Select Committee on deliberate online falsehoods, its chairman Charles Chong said in his wrap-up statement yesterday.

These are: The importance of free speech and the need for added legislation.

He noted that some who appeared before the committee had argued that free speech protections do not extend to the spread of falsehoods, and that "we are entitled to our own opinion and not our own facts".

Some others, however, were opposed to putting any limits on expression, even when it is "demonstrably false and harmful".

Current legislation, Mr Chong said, was limited in tackling the problem. While some opposed any new laws, others gave "specific proposals" on how anti-fake news laws should look like, he added.

However, Mr Chong said "many agreed on the need to respond to falsehoods both quickly and effectively, as a matter of principle".

ROBUST ENGAGEMENT

There was extensive involvement and robust engagement. It reflects our sincerity to consult widely and engage deeply on the issue, to properly understand the problem and recommend solutions that would best serve Singapore and Singaporeans.

COMMITTEE CHAIRMAN CHARLES CHONG, at the end of yesterday's hearings.

Different approaches were suggested. These include quality journalism as a bulwark against the spread of false information and the need for a fact-checking mechanism.

Media literacy groups and others, he added, spoke on "the need to educate all segments of the public on how to discriminate between what is factual and what is not".

Mr Chong, in summarising the evidence given, said the committee heard "first-hand how deliberate online falsehoods are a real and serious problem and how they can harm national security, racial and religious harmony, public institutions and democratic processes".

He said that, among other things, the committee also learnt how digital technologies have made it easier, cheaper and more profitable to create and spread falsehoods.

He added: "We also held two private sessions to hear about information campaigns with national security implications for Singapore.''

The people who came before the committee included local and overseas experts, technology and media companies, civil society members, students and members of the public.

With tongue firmly in cheek, he added: "And one protester."

He was referring to activist Han Hui Hui, who was removed from the room by Parliament staff for "creating a disturbance".

Ms Han, seated in the public gallery, had repeatedly displayed a copy of the book cover of Authoritarian Rule Of Law: Legislation, Discourse And Legitimacy In Singapore by academic Jothie Rajah.

The committee said that Human Rights Watch had not replied to its invitation to give oral evidence by the noon deadline yesterday.

It will produce a report with recommendations to Parliament after the latter reconvenes in May.

A version of this article appeared in the print edition of The Straits Times on March 30, 2018, with the headline 'Two clear themes emerge, says Charles Chong'. Print Edition | Subscribe