Select Committee hearings on fake news

No need for new laws to tackle fake news, say activists

They call instead for greater public access to information and more media literacy

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Journalist Kirsten Han and former The Online Citizen editor Howard Lee debate with Law and Home Affairs Minister K. Shanmugam on what and who defines what is true at the Select Committee on deliberate online falsehoods on Tuesday.

There is no need for new legislation to deal with online fabrications, said activists and content producers, as they called for greater public access to information and improving media literacy.

Their call sparked a long debate yesterday when four of them appeared before the Select Committee on deliberate online falsehoods, as one of its members, Mr Edwin Tong, sought for over five hours to convince them otherwise.

Yesterday was the sixth day of public hearings, which have so far seen 51 representatives speak since March 14. The last hearing is slated to take place tomorrow.

Mr Tong pointed out that previous witnesses - including academics and legal experts - had identified gaps in existing legislation and acknowledged that stronger laws, along with a slew of other measures such as public education, would help tackle the scourge of fake news.

He and fellow committee member Janil Puthucheary also noted that a poll by government feedback unit Reach found that about nine in 10 respondents felt there should be more effective laws to require the removal or correction of false reports.

But the panel of speakers - made up of Maruah vice-president Ngiam Shih Tung, freelance journalist Kirsten Han, The Online Citizen chief editor Terry Xu and graduate student Howard Lee - remained largely unswayed.

The four witnesses had in their written submissions argued that existing laws are sufficient to deal with online falsehoods.

Human rights group Maruah cautioned that any new laws could stifle free speech and be used to stifle legitimate, dissenting views.

Mr Xu noted that countries cited in the Green Paper on online falsehoods as introducing new laws are doing so because their existing laws "are very liberal" compared with Singapore's, "which cover all aspects of free speech".

The witnesses suggested instead more media literacy and political education, as well as a Freedom of Information Act.

Yesterday, Mr Tong asked the panel how online falsehoods, hate groups that have cropped up on social media and offensive cartoons, among other things, can be countered without new legislation.

Ms Han said repeatedly that she was against new laws, including those to compel technology giants such as Facebook and Twitter to take down content.

But if a deliberate online falsehood has the potential to undermine national security or social cohesion, should not something be done about it, asked Mr Tong.

"Because the flip side of what you are saying is that we can't do anything about it," he said.

Disagreeing, Ms Han said Singapore has sufficient legislation to deal with such falsehoods.

Committee member Pritam Singh later asked Ms Han if she would accept that an elected government could have powers to compel content sites to remove posts quickly, if the red line of incitement to violence is crossed.

This would not be a broad sweeping power that is activated all the time, but in specific instances.

Replying, Ms Han said: "We have a lot of laws that... even if they are not specifically about targeting falsehoods - can actually be used in the instances of the harms that we think will be triggered by these falsehoods."

Mr Singh, using the Arabic word for "forbidden", then asked: "So, conceptually it is not haram to have a policy that you actually have to take down something?"

Ms Han replied: "I would urge that to be the very last resort, but if we already have those powers, I would say we don't need more. Or we don't need to double up."

The hearing, which started at 10am, drew to a close only after 9pm, with the last of the day's witnesses, activist Jolovan Wham, getting only five minutes in front of the panel after a seven-hour wait.

Mr Wham had argued in his written submission that current safeguards are sufficient to deal with fake news because the issue is not a major one here.

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

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A version of this article appeared in the print edition of The Straits Times on March 28, 2018, with the headline No need for new laws to tackle fake news, say activists. Subscribe