SINGAPORE: Two local rights groups have opposed new laws against fake news, stating that existing legislation already deals with deliberate online falsehoods (DOFs).
Human rights group MARUAH said in written testimony submitted to the Select Committee on Deliberate Online Falsehoods on Tuesday (Mar 27) that existing laws have been used against DOFs in Singapore and overseas, noting that the editors of socio-political site The Real Singapore (TRS) were prosecuted under the Sedition Act after publishing false allegations against foreigners.
MARUAH is the Singapore arm of Working Group for an ASEAN Human Rights Mechanism, which aims to establish an intergovernmental human rights commission for ASEAN.
The group added that laws like the Parliamentary Elections Act, Telecommunications Act and the Penal Code also apply to DOFs, as they contain provisions against the transmission of false messages or those that might incite crimes against the State or any community.
“Those laws were written in the pre-internet age but they are still applicable to deliberate online falsehoods today,” MARUAH said in its representation.
In addition, MARUAH said the Government has not yet cited the risk of self-radicalisation by extremist websites when justifying new laws against DOFs, although such websites that espouse distorted interpretations of religions could be deemed as spreading DOFs.
“By failing to raise those examples, the government is suggesting that existing laws such as the ISA (Internal Security Act) are sufficient to defend against this kind of threat,” it added.
Civil rights group Community Action Network (CAN), which comprises social workers, journalists and artists, also cited the TRS example, stating that as “no similar problems have since arisen, it is logical to conclude that existing laws are sufficient in dealing with fake news”.
“There is sufficient legislation in Singapore to deal with online falsehoods,” it said, using the Maintenance of Religious Harmony Act and the Info-communications Media Development Authority’s licensing framework as examples.
The latter requires online news sites that have a significant reach to post a performance bond of S$50,000 and remove content that is in breach of content standards within 24 hours.
However, CAN argued that some of these laws are “oppressive and impede free speech”, as it suggested teaching media literacy skills as the best way to combat fake news.
Introducing new laws against fake news would also run a “high risk” of stifling free speech, MARUAH said, adding that it could be used against the “legitimate expression of dissenting views”.
“Given the historical tendency of the Government to narrowly define the boundaries for free speech in Singapore, we have to assume that it also targeting Singaporeans who use what the Government deems to be ‘falsehoods’ to influence public opinion and political outcomes in Singapore,” it wrote.
In addition, the Government’s rebuttals and clarifications often appear “prominently” in mainstream media reports, CAN said, meaning “there is no credible evidence that new laws to tackle fake news is necessary”.
“The mainstream media still produces most of the news and information on Singapore,” it wrote. “As it is controlled by the Government and the ruling party, any misinformation can be easily dealt with.”
QUESTIONS ABOUT “MARXIST CONSPIRACY”
Meanwhile, CAN also accused the mainstream media of helping the Government perpetuate “dubious allegations” that qualify as fake news. For example, it said the media “parroted” the Government’s position that there was a Marxist Conspiracy in 1987.
The Government said that the 22 people detained under the ISA that year were “Marxist conspirators who wanted to topple the Government”, MARUAH said.
However, it added that the detainees have refuted the charges, with Australian academic Michael Barr stating that “there never was a conspiracy, Marxist or otherwise”.
“In the event that laws against DOF are enacted, would the Government then be able to declare that the detainees’ statements are online falsehoods … or block Singaporeans from accessing the academic journal where Prof Barr’s offending statements are published?”
CAN also urged the committee to “address falsehoods propagated by the Government” which includes the “Marxist Conspiracy”. It did not elaborate further.
The groups went on to cite US President Donald Trump’s use of the term “fake news” to dismiss critical news reports by credible news organisations.
CAN urged the Government “not to go down the same route”, while MARUAH asked: “What will prevent the Singapore Government from deciding that all critical views are deliberate falsehoods and subject to sanction under laws against DOF?”
FAKE NEWS NOT "MAJOR ISSUE" IN SINGAPORE: CAN
In its written submission, CAN said it believes that “fake news is not a major issue in Singapore, and that there are enough safeguards in place to deal with potential problems”.
When CAN member Jolovan Wham was asked during his appearance before the Committee if he would like to reconsider the group's position, given the numerous parties that have testified otherwise, he demurred.
“We need to look at real-life evidence and not speculate and draw conclusions from evidence that is not relevant to us,” he said, adding that the testimony came from foreign parties.
Select committee member Edwin Tong then asked Mr Wham if CAN's written representation should be looked at based on the group's view that there is no evidence of online falsehoods affecting Singapore.
Mr Wham agreed, reiterating that “based on the evidence that's been presented so far, it doesn't seem convincing”.