THE SELECT Committee on Deliberate Online Falsehoods made some amendments to the summaries of evidence published on the publicly-accessible Singapore Parliament website.
This came after it received requests from some witnesses including activists Kirsten Han and Jolovan Wham for changes, and which makes us think that the Select Committee on Deliberate Online Falsehoods has just provided an example of how its own actions showcase the issue at hand.
The news of the amendments added to the eight-day soap opera that was the Select Committee hearings. And mistakes can be made in the delivery of information to the public, but not come under the umbrella of deliberate falsehoods or fake news.
If it was an honest mistake, the Select Committee would have learnt first-hand that it is not easy to nail down the facts all the time.
Especially when there is an information overload, which is what the Select Committee proceedings generated.
Real Or Fake Fear?
The hearings were a prelude to anticipated legislation on dealing with deliberate online falsehoods or fake news in Singapore. True to the government’s modus operandi, the Select Committee hearings accorded a veneer of democratic process before such legislation is eventually introduced. However, a mean-spirited heavy-handedness that was evident in some of the proceedings tainted the process, lending it an authoritarian hue.
Shortly after the Select Committee hearings ended in Singapore, Malaysia passed an anti-fake news bill in parliament. Opposition members of parliament and civil society groups in the country said that it would be used to silence dissent ahead of Malaysia’s general election, that has now been set for May 9. The law carries punishments of up to six years in prison, down from 10 years originally proposed, and a maximum fine of MYR500,000.
Minister in the Prime Minister’s Department in Malaysia, Azalina Othman, said social media such as Twitter and Facebook have acknowledged they are unable to monitor fake news on their platforms. She said the bill gives power to the court, not the government, to decide what is fake news. “No one is above the law. We are all accountable for our actions,” she said. Her comments suggest that a public prosecutor can technically go after the government too in the pursuit of the eradication of fake news.
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Wielding A Strong Arm?
For some observers, these developments in Singapore and Malaysia are a cause for concern as they could be marking a trend of censorship in the region if other countries follow suit. The Philippines and Cambodia are also reported to be considering anti-fake news legislation.
The Indian government tried to blacklist mainstream media journalists accused of propagating fake news, but the move was met by intense blowback with claims of media harassment meant to suppress news the government may not find to its liking. The notice was rescinded within 15 hours.
Amnesty International called on the Singapore government to ensure that any proposed legislation resulting from the hearings does not act as another tool to crack down on activists, journalists, and government critics. It said that any legislation proposed must be subject to proper scrutiny and does not quash freedom of expression. The organisation also urged Singapore authorities to end its harassment and intimidation of human rights defenders and allow for peaceful and open debate on “fake news” and the exercise of freedom of expression in line with international laws and standards.
Will Legislation Help?
At this relatively early stage, it would seem that any anti-fake news legislation will be loaded against government critics. It will not be as easy for the man in the street to level fake news charges against a government, compared to the other way around.
This brings up the question of whose interests such laws are enacted for. There are already sedition and anti-terrorism laws in place to handle national security matters, so is there a need for anti-fake news laws?
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Further, such laws will put an unnecessary spotlight on judiciaries in how they prosecute under anti-fake news legislation. It has the potential to create uncertainties about their independence if such laws are not administered fairly for all stakeholders including political parties, the mainstream media, alternative media and individuals.
In the meantime, the lead-up to the Malaysian elections will be closely watched by governments around the world to see if the new anti-fake news legislation will have a quietening or disquieting effect on government critics.
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