Select Committee hearings on fake news

Engage citizen journalists more, urges ex-TOC editor

Mr Andrew Loh suggested that a fund could be set up to help online content producers hone journalism skills.
Mr Andrew Loh suggested that a fund could be set up to help online content producers hone journalism skills.

The former editor of a sociopolitical site in Singapore yesterday urged the Government to better engage citizen journalists, and even consider funding programmes to help them hone their skills.

This could help combat the problem of fake news, said Mr Andrew Loh, who co-founded The Online Citizen (TOC) in 2006.

"Why not the Government engage instead of confront?" he asked the Select Committee on deliberate online falsehoods. "To combat falsehoods, we need everyone on board - and I agree with that, because we are talking about things like national security, our sovereignty and our national harmony."

He added: "Everyone must include the alternative media."

Acting chairman Seah Kian Peng assured Mr Loh that the committee was seeking a range of views, and looking at a multi-pronged approach to deal with online fabrications.

Mr Loh noted in his written submission to the committee that online content producers are mostly short on resources and amateurs at news reporting.

He suggested that the Government step up engagement with citizen journalists, who "can do better if they had the resources to do so". This, he added, will signal to the public that "the Government's position is not one of simply meting out punishment and penalties and threats".

A fund could be set up to help these content producers boost their writing or journalism skills and encourage people with legal and reporting knowledge to do workshops for the online community, he said.

Select Committee member Edwin Tong said the committee would consider the suggestion.

"The idea is... to inoculate, to make sure we build a more resilient society," Mr Tong said. "I don't think anyone on this committee will disagree with that."

The conciliatory note came after he and Mr Loh tussled for over 30 minutes on issues such as police powers and whether legislation like the Administration of Justice Act is used more heavily against alternative media than traditional media.

Mr Tong said Mr Loh seemed to suggest in his submission that alternative and mainstream media are treated differently. The Administration of Justice Act applies equally to both, he added.

Mr Loh also noted that laws have been passed to grant the police wider-ranging powers.

To this, Mr Tong cited a recent public perception survey to illustrate that Singaporeans trust the police, and said officers wielded some of these powers only under strict circumstances.

Mr Loh said that even so, that "is a bit of an overreach".

Intent was a bone of contention as well, with Mr Loh saying a person would need to have "malicious intentions" to be judged as having spread deliberate online falsehoods.

Mr Tong countered that harm through such fabrications can be caused intentionally or otherwise, but noted that those who did so intentionally would be dealt with differently from those who did not.

In his submission, Mr Loh said meetings between new ministers and the online community were held after the 2011 General Election, and urged the Government to bring back such dialogue opportunities. Such engagement may result in a better outcome than "throwing the book" at online content producers, he told the committee.

While he agreed that there should be a range of remedies depending on the degree of a person's culpability, he cautioned the Government not to overreach as this could stifle freedom of expression.

"I hope the Government will understand we are not troublemakers. I don't hide. I am not anonymous," he said as his hour-long session drew to an end, recalling that he told his team not to use pseudonyms when he started TOC.

A version of this article appeared in the print edition of The Straits Times on March 29, 2018, with the headline 'Engage citizen journalists more, urges ex-TOC editor'. Print Edition | Subscribe