SINGAPORE: Local non-mainstream media journalists on Tuesday (Mar 27) tussled with a Parliamentary committee over their views on deliberate online falsehoods (DOFs) during a public hearing which stretched to a gruelling five hours - the longest thus far, with six out of eight sessions completed.
Panel member Edwin Tong and witnesses Terry Xu and Kirsten Han engaged in a lively, at times tense but overall civil discussion interspersed with frequent utterances of “let me finish”.
The former, who is chief editor of socio-political website The Online Citizen, was grilled over an article on teenager Benjamin Lim, who in 2016 committed suicide after being questioned by police over an allegation of molest.
“As a content provider, as someone who publishes and circulates … you have a responsibility to make sure you get the facts right, correct?” Mr Tong, a lawyer, asked. “Is it part of your duty to ensure that whatever you put out there is accurate?”
“As accurate as I can,” said Mr Xu. “But there are times where you can't get a response, despite how long you wait, but then the stories still have to be pushed through.”
Mr Tong’s bone of contention was how a TOC headline - “Student said plainclothes officers at school, wore T-shirts with ‘Police’ at its back” - remained unchanged despite it being “at odds” with a police statement which clarified that while the officers were in plainclothes, they did not have the words “Police” printed on the back.
Mr Xu maintained the article was based on the testimony of the mother of a student at the school. “Who subsequently took down her Facebook posting, correct?” said Mr Tong, to which Mr Xu said yes.
“And you still carried on with this report? Wouldn't it be the case that by now it's quite clear, that the headline would be misleading?” Mr Tong asked.
“That is from the police’s point of view,” said Mr Xu. “I would gladly change the article's title if the police allowed me to see the CCTV for the school.”
Mr Tong remarked: “You are saying that you will only report if your questions are answered … or ... if the court tells you to make a correction. “
Mr Xu then said he would have complied if the police had given him “some instruction”. The same arguments by him and Mr Tong were then stressed at least twice over.
ON FREEDOM OF EXPRESSION
The ensuing back-and-forth between Mr Tong and freelance journalist Ms Han proved a far more protracted one.
Noting how Ms Han’s written submission referenced a Human Rights Watch (HRW) report on Singapore’s restrictions on freedom of expression, Mr Tong said: “That seems to be a narrative that goes through your submission, in the context of trying to frame an appropriate response to DOFs and trying to decide whether legislation is necessary.
“In the Human Rights Watch report, you were one of the 34, correct, who was interviewed and on whose views the report was prepared?”
Ms Han said she did not think the question necessary nor relevant, and pointed out she had quoted other studies in her submission before appealing to the committee’s Acting Chairman Seah Kian Peng.
“Ms Han, whether or not it is relevant is for us to determine,” said Mr Seah. If you prefer not to answer or you do not know the answer to the question, you can state so.”
Said Ms Han: “In that case, yes, I was one of the 34.”
They then entered lengthy disagreement over three cases cited by HRW - British author Alan Shadrake, blogger Amos Yee and activist Roy Ngerng - which led to Ms Han questioning why she was “suddenly now in this position of defending” the HRW report.
“Because you have set it out as a basis,” said Mr Tong.
“I have used it to say that our freedom of expression issue in Singapore is already fraught and already problematic, of which the Human Rights Watch report is one example of criticism that has been levied,” said Ms Han.
ON HAN’S JOURNALISM
Moving on to Ms Han’s capacity as a journalist, Mr Tong cited an article she wrote last Friday for Hong Kong-based website Asia Times, titled “Singapore plays up terrorism to curb liberties”.
Mr Tong took issue with how she quoted civil society groups as identifying “a sit-down demonstration for a cause” as reason to invoke a new Public Order and Safety (Special Powers) Act.
The full text in the Bill, said Mr Tong, describes a scenario where “a sit-down demonstration for a cause attracts a large group of sympathisers who voluntarily join the sit-in. For over a week, the group grows and the demonstrators start to occupy the publicly accessible paths and other open spaces ... Their presence starts to impede the flow of vehicular and pedestrian traffic and interfere with normal trade or business activities in the area”.
“That is quite different from just having 'a sit-down demonstration', correct?
“If cited completely, it would … address the imbalance I think you're trying to convey which is heavily slanted in favour of curbing liberties,” said Mr Tong.
Ms Han replied: “I feel that even if it had been quoted in full, I would still stand by my argument that there are concerns that national security has been used to justify things that might curb civil liberties in Singapore.”
“That is a different point,” Mr Tong countered. “All I'm putting to you is there is a difference between what you have quoted and what the full illustration actually entails.”
He said the article was “incomplete at the very least, and possibly misleading at the other end of the spectrum”.
“I take your point and accept your opinion,” said Ms Han. “This is the sort of open discussion that I would recommend for discussing issues which we disagree on interpretation; we talk about it openly, nobody gets sued and nobody goes to jail.”
“Not yet,” said Mr Tong.
“Not yet ... oh dear,” said Ms Han.