Select Committee hearings on fake news

US-based NGO fails to show up for hearing

Israel-based academic Gerald M. Steinberg, speaking via video conference, said HRW selectively looks for evidence that proves its case.
Israel-based academic Gerald M. Steinberg, speaking via video conference, said HRW selectively looks for evidence that proves its case.PHOTO: GOV.SG

Human Rights Watch also taken to task for using false examples in report on Singapore

Human Rights Watch (HRW) was yesterday accused of using falsehoods to advocate for political change in Singapore, and labelled a "radical left-wing" organisation.

The United States-based non-governmental organisation (NGO) came under fire during a Select Committee hearing on deliberate online falsehoods, with the People's Action Party Policy Forum and Israel-based academic Gerald M. Steinberg calling it untrustworthy.

Representing the PAP policy platform, Sembawang GRC MP Vikram Nair criticised the NGO's report "Kill The Chicken To Scare The Monkeys" - Suppression Of Free Expression And Assembly In Singapore, published last December, saying it was a type of deliberate falsehood.

Professor Steinberg, who gave evidence via video conference, said HRW hires people who are "ideologically committed to a certain position" and selectively looks for evidence that proves the case that they are trying to make.

Select Committee chair Charles Chong noted during the hearing that HRW was invited to give oral evidence. It was initially willing to come, but later said its staff member could not make it after being told it would be asked about its report.

Mr Nair said that HRW's 133-page report "attempted to legitimise examples that were clearly false".

He cited several examples, including the case of blogger Roy Ngerng, who was sued by Prime Minister Lee Hsien Loong for defamation after he wrote a blog post about the Government's handling of the Central Provident Fund.

Mr Nair said in those cases, the individuals had deliberately made false allegations. "HRW seems to suggest these are acceptable and that Singapore's laws and political system should allow such falsehoods to be freely made," he wrote.

The rights group set out about 60 recommendations in the report, including calling for the repeal or amendment of restrictions on rights to peaceful assembly and speech here. The report drew on interviews with 34 activists, lawyers, journalists, academics and opposition politicians, and looked at laws such as the Public Order Act and Sedition Act.

Mr Nair also said the rights group seemed to suggest that falsehoods are a legitimate part of public discourse. "But we are of the view that false news, in fact, undermines public discourse," he said.

He added: "This is an example of an entity that is outside Singapore, whose motivations are unclear, but which is generally putting forward information to change laws in Singapore."

Prof Steinberg, who is president of the organisation NGO Monitor, said that while HRW claims its investigations are rigorous and objective, "you see very clearly that they focus on a few issues, and they do that because those issues conform to their… radical left-wing ideology".

Mr Chong said the Parliament Secretariat had offered to fund the costs of HRW's representative flying in, or arrange for video conferencing at any time between March 15 and 29. But the group has said it is unavailable to do so.

He added that the invitation to HRW still stands, should it decide it is willing to give oral evidence.

In a statement yesterday, the Law Ministry noted that HRW has chosen not to appear before the committee to defend the report, which it said contains "serious inaccuracies, misimpressions, untrue statements".

The ministry said: "HRW's stance is disappointing, but not surprising. HRW has a pattern of issuing biased and untruthful statements about Singapore. It knows that its report will not withstand any scrutiny, and has therefore chosen not to come to Singapore to publicly defend its views.

"HRW, by its conduct, has shown that it cannot be taken seriously as a commentator or interlocutor on issues relating to Singapore."

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

A version of this article appeared in the print edition of The Straits Times on March 24, 2018, with the headline 'US-based NGO fails to show up for hearing'. Print Edition | Subscribe