SINGAPORE: A trio of non-mainstream media journalists on Tuesday (Mar 27) advocated a Freedom of Information Act while espousing the ideals of openness, media literacy and public education to a parliamentary committee on deliberate online falsehoods.
Kirsten Han, a former editor of activist blog The Online Citizen (TOC), wrote that such an Act would allow Singaporeans to put in requests for data from the Government to “do their own fact-checking; conduct their own analysis and come to their own conclusions”.
She also called for processes to be developed to regularly declassify archival material for Singaporeans to access. “Greater transparency … also comes with the benefit of building and strengthening public trust by demonstrating the Government’s willingness to be held to account and communicate openly with its citizens,” said Ms Han.
In TOC’s own submission, written by chief editor Terry Xu, the website also spoke of a Freedom of Information Act, adding: “The best way is to allow citizens to gain access to more sources of information and for them to develop a questioning ... mindset on what is true or false, whether the information is from official or independent sources.”
Openness, Ms Han added, is the antidote to fake news and disinformation campaigns, which “thrive in an information vacuum”.
“When Singaporeans feel mainstream media is controlled by the state and that the Government has the power to decide what they do or do not see, read, hear or even say, it creates an environment in which people become more susceptible to claims that the powerful are deliberately hiding things from them,” she explained.
“This leads to a greater willingness in some segments of society to believe conspiracy theories and other unsubstantiated assertions. Further clampdowns on what one can say or do online are likely to perpetuate an environment in which distrust, resentment and fake news can spread.”
At the hearing, committee member Edwin Tong asked Ms Han if the Act would "impede the way governments would work".
Ms Han replied: "It doesn't impede the Government's ability to keep things confidential for legitimate national security reasons. The Freedom of Information Act does not mean every top-secret classified document automatically becomes public."
Said Mr Tong: "Matters that affect security … affect the way in which governments do their work, would become subject to scrutiny and that’s not necessarily a good thing is it?"
To which Ms Han said: “They should be subject to scrutiny. They are elected officials."
LAWS “MORE HARM THAN GOOD”
TOC echoed her sentiments while additionally suggesting the Government revoke the Newspaper and Printing Presses Act. “This would allow the media both online and offline to function the way they should, informing and educating the public about the world, instead of spreading government propaganda and narratives which go against common sense,” its submission read.
Other solutions proposed by Ms Han included the need for media literacy education, starting from primary school level, as a “more effective” long-term measure.
“The media cannot, and has never been, a foolproof gatekeeper of the truth, nor can any government or public institution,” she said. “Singaporeans should be taught to be sceptical of every source they read and to approach everything with a critical eye.”
Ms Han also mooted the introduction of an independent ombudsman to represent public interest in addressing complaints against the Government and public institutions. This, she said, would go “a long way in building public confidence in the robustness of our democracy and its processes”.
TOC, Ms Han, as well as another former TOC editor, Howard Lee, all spoke out against the need for legislation, pointing to how existing laws already suffice to address deliberate online falsehoods.
“The potential for virality on social media has led some to argue that these laws do not allow the authorities to act swiftly enough to counter the speed with which fake news might spread,” said Ms Han. “However, we should be careful not to trade important principles of justice and due process for speed. Hasty measures carry the danger of according too much power to the authorities, at the expense of freedom of expression and open data in Singapore.”
She instead urged for a review of current legislation “to remove overly broad laws that curb free speech and stifle the vigorous exchange of ideas and opinions on issues of national importance”.
Mr Lee, now a PhD student, said a legislation would do “more harm than good to democratic processes”.
“Any action taken that risks impacting freedom of expression and are not directed at the interests and real-world concerns of citizens can only discredit the Government’s efforts and risk accusations of political manipulation of laws,” he wrote.
Mr Tong, however, clarified that "No one here is saying that one looks at only legislation. But one must be looking at a different spectrum of items. I don't disagree ... that when you look at disinformation that is perhaps less on the false side but still equally pernicious, education in the long term would be useful."
Ms Han, too, acknowledged that certain circumstances would require quick action and legislation, and referred to what Dr Cherian George said in an earlier hearing: "I believe Dr George gave an example of how when a preacher is preaching hate against a particular community, it's not the time to be distributing media literacy flyers, and he specifically said 'throw the book at him'.
"I would agree and my point is we already have many books to throw at him."
Mr Tong said: "Well, the question whether there should be more books or less books or the same books. That is a question that will be taken up."
“WHO GETS TO DECIDE?”
Mr Lee also commented that the Government’s current position on misinformation was “more notable for its lack of understanding and study of the issue, rather than a definitive stance supported by positive deduction”.
He said the Government risked “lumping” a variety of terms to describe misinformation together under one banner, a point mirrored by Ms Han.
“The discourse around this issue in Singapore gives a sense that the authorities are thinking of fake news as encompassing a broad range of activities from both foreign and local, state and non-state, actors,” she wrote.
Ms Han said deliberate online falsehoods and fake news were, to begin with, “ill-defined terms … easily subject to abuse … to stifle dissent, discredit critical reporting and obscure serious problems”.
She cited the example of US President Donald Trump, who she described as using the term “to discredit any piece of reporting, any media publication, or any journalist he doesn’t like”.
Ms Han said the wider public would also grapple with properly defining fake news when it came to, for instance, satirical content like that of US-based website the Onion, Singapore-based New Nation and local TV comedy series The Noose.
She noted the issue of intent was a challenge as well, particularly in scenarios such as the oft-cited one of friends or relatives sharing dubious or unverified information over WhatsApp chats - a “deliberate, but … far from malicious” act.
In cases like these, asked TOC, “who will judge what is 'falsehoods’ or ‘truth’? Will the Government alone decide what is false and what is true?”
Ms Han also questioned: “Who gets to decide … ? Why should this person, or this body, be given that much power to decide on everyone else’s behalf? How can that power be checked so as to prevent abuse?
“Any legislation built upon such ambiguous terms would be overly broad … to allow the authorities as much discretion as possible to respond to a variety of scenarios,” she said. “But ... while convenient for those involved in enforcement … (it) leaves people confused over what is or isn’t legal to do or say.
“Faced with such uncertainty, Singaporeans might choose to err on the side of caution and self-censor … and thus have a chilling effect on open dialogue and exchange in Singapore.”