Civil society activists criticise Singapore’s Select Committee hearings

Open public consultations are a rarity under Singapore’s current administration. As such, when the Select Committee on Deliberate Online Falsehoods solicited submissions from the public, we engaged in good faith.

We were concerned that responses to “fake news” could potentially infringe upon Singaporeans’ freedom of expression or trigger unintended negative consequences and thus made submissions to that effect. When invited to give oral evidence before the Committee, we did our best to accommodate the Committee despite multiple, sometimes last-minute, scheduling changes.

However, the hearings were hardly open or consultative.

  1. The Select Committee did not adhere to its own Terms of Reference.

    The Committee’s Terms of Reference are to examine and report on:
    (a) the phenomenon of using digital technology to deliberately spread falsehoods online;
    (b) the motivations and reasons for the spreading of such falsehoods, and the types of individuals and entities, both local and foreign, which engage in such activity;
    (c) the consequences that the spread of online falsehoods can have on Singapore society, including to our institutions and democratic processes; and

(d) how Singapore can prevent and combat online falsehoods, including:

(i) the principles that should guide Singapore’s response; and

(ii) any specific measures, including legislation, that should be taken.

 Dr Thum Ping Tjin was questioned for six hours before the Select Committee over his work and expertise on Singapore history and whether there was evidence of a Communist United Front conspiracy in the 1950s and 1960s. Although he had made specific recommendations on measures that should be taken to combat online falsehoods, he was unable to address them during the session.

Ms Kirsten Han was questioned over an article she had written for an online news publication. It was suggested that she had presented a misleading picture within the article. It was not clear how this was relevant to the Select Committee’s Terms of Reference. The exchange ended with Committee member Edwin Tong issuing a veiled threat that Ms Han had “not yet” been sued or jailed.

The international NGO Human Rights Watch was first invited to give oral evidence on the issue of Deliberate Online Falsehoods. It was later told that it would have to defend its report on freedom of expression in Singapore, although this is not within the Terms of Reference of the Select Committee. The justification given was that submissions such as the one made by the PAP Policy Forum had alleged that the report was a “deliberate falsehood”. We note that the PAP Policy Forum’s entire submission was dedicated to discrediting the HRW report rather than discussing the measures that could be taken against deliberate online falsehoods.

  1. The Select Committee did not appear to be interested in soliciting our views.

Numerous leading questions were asked. Members of the Select Committee repeatedly insisted on yes or no answers to their questions, despite repeatedly being told of the importance of context and nuance.

Despite being questioned for six hours, Dr Thum Ping Tjin was not asked to address points in his written submission regarding deliberate online falsehoods.

Mr Jolovan Wham was made to wait for six hours before his session on behalf of the Community Action Network (CAN), which lasted less than 10 minutes. He was unable to expand on the views that presented in its written submission.

  1. Articles were presented and selectively quoted in ways that were sometimes misleading.

For example, Mr Edwin Tong quoted the first three paragraphs of an article (https://www.theguardian.com/politics/2011/sep/20/mixed-results-blairs-dangerous-act) to question Ms Kirsten Han over the Freedom of Information Act. In those paragraphs, former UK Prime Minister Tony Blair described the Freedom of Information Act as “dangerous”.

However, the rest of the article presents a different picture. It is thus puzzling why the article was used in such a way; since it was meant to be a process of consultation, it would have been more appropriate to engage with the spirit of the article rather than use an unrepresentative portion of the piece to question a witness.

  1. Following appearances before the Select Committee, some submissions were grossly misrepresented within the official Summary of Evidence.In advocating for the introduction of a Freedom of Information Act, Ms Kirsten Han specifically stated that the government will still be able to argue for non-disclosure and the confidentiality of particular documents on legitimate national security grounds. However, the summary stated that “she was of the view that transparency should be valued, even if such legislation could compromise national security and waste resources.” Other points were also similarly misrepresented.

    Mr Jolovan Wham was stated in the summary as having said that “there is no evidence of online falsehoods.” This is not true. What Mr Wham had actually said was that there was no empirical evidence that online falsehoods have a significant impact on Singapore society.

Complaints have been lodged by Ms Kirsten Han, Mr Jolovan Wham and Mr Terry Xu regarding the way their submissions have been represented in the Summary of Evidence. Despite this, the Summary of Evidence has not yet been amended.

We attended the open hearings to share our views and contribute to the body of evidence that the Select Committee should consider for their report. We did not expect to be harangued, harassed, threatened and misrepresented.

We are concerned that such proceedings would only serve to perpetuate suspicions that a decision has already been made and that the process was not genuine. This could potentially undermine public trust—a key factor in the fight against disinformation campaigns.

We reiterate our stance that measures to deal with this issue should not come in the form of further censorship or state regulation of content. Instead, we call for a more open and transparent society in which citizens are provided comprehensive media literacy and political education. We reiterate our call for the introduction of a Freedom of Information Act, and for current laws that curb freedom of expression to be reviewed.

Signed:

Community Action Network

Kirsten Han

Thum Ping Tjin

Terry Xu

Function 8

 

Image source: https://www.channelnewsasia.com/news/singapore/tackle-deliberate-online-falsehoods-look-beyond-legislation-10070876

Advertisements

Complaint to the Select Committee on online falsehoods

Background

The Community Action Network was invited to give oral evidence to the Select Committee, on online falsehoods earlier this week. This invitation came after we had written a submission to them. After the hearing, a summary of the evidence given was published on the Singapore parliament website. As the summary is a misrepresentation of our views and the general thrust of our submission, we sent the following email to the committee.

Attn: Mr Charles Chong, Chairperson, Select Committee on online falsehoods

Dear Mr Chong,

I bring your attention to the document “Select Committee on Deliberate Online Falsehoods Summary of Evidence – 27 March 2018 (Day 6).”

The summary presented has grossly misrepresented what was said by me at the hearing and the Community Action Network’s position as outlined in our submission.This is ironic considering the panel was obtaining views on the issue of “deliberate online falsehoods.” In my exchange with Mr Tong, I did not say that there was no evidence of online falsehoods. I said there was no empirical evidence that online falsehoods have a significant impact on Singapore society. CAN’s submission also asserted that current laws are sufficient to deal with any potential threats.

Mr Tong said that online falsehoods have been used to exploit racial and religious fault lines. I had asked for evidence of its destabilizing effect on our society. Mr Tong was unable to provide any. The Community Action Network would have been happy to elaborate its position further and provide more oral evidence for our views; however, we were not given the opportunity to do so.

At one point of the hearing on the 27th, I note that Mr Edwin Tong had accused Ms Kirsten Han of “misrepresentation” and by implication “falsehood” for not including the full text of the law that she cited for one of her articles. But unlike Ms Han, whose articles are subject to editorial controls because of space constraints, the committee should not be limited by this in its summary descriptions. Brevity should not be a justification to make false statements and misrepresent us.

In light of how the Committee was so disrespectful of my time (I waited 7 hours for my turn to speak), and had given me less than 5 minutes to present my views, such a terse account is unacceptable. I would like to request that the summary be re-written with input from the Community Action Network.

Thank you.

Regards,
Jolovan

 

Image source: https://www.channelnewsasia.com/news/singapore/select-committee-deliberate-online-falsehoods-charles-chong-10041914

The Select Committee on online falsehoods should engage all NGOs in good faith

The Community Action Network is deeply concerned about recent events related to the hearings conducted by Singapore’s Select Committee on Deliberate Online Falsehoods.

We were initially heartened by the government’s willingness to solicit public opinion over a matter it deems to be of utmost importance. That the Select Committee received more submissions than others preceding it, is a welcome sign as it shows that more and more Singaporeans are interested in participating in the political process.

However, the hearings have, in recent days, taken a disturbing turn.

Last week, the Select Committee issued, and Singapore’s mainstream media published, a chronology  of the Committee’s exchange with international NGO Human Rights Watch (HRW). The purpose it appears, was to show that despite repeated invitations, HRW had refused to appear before the Select Committee.

At approximately the same time, the mainstream media gave prominent coverage to submissions made by the PAP Policy Forum, which accused HRW of spreading “falsehoods” in its report about freedom of expression in Singapore.

The Ministry of Law also issued a press release in which it castigated HRW for refusing to “publicly defend its report”.

The PAP Policy Forum is entitled to its opinion but according to the Terms of Reference  set out by the government, the Select Committee was not convened to debate the merits of HRW’s report.

We also question the undue weight and publicity given to just one of 164 submissions received by the Committee, especially as the PAP Policy Forum’s definition of what constitutes a falsehood is highly debatable.

We note also that HRW did not make a submission. The chronology of events shows that despite this, the organisation had accepted a request to attend the hearing, and was only told after the fact that it would be expected to defend its report.

The hearings that are currently underway are not the right platform for such debates. If the government is interested in disputing HRW’s findings, it should issue a separate invitation to a separate debate. Or, it could have responded to HRW’s request for comment before the report was released.

We note also that Law Minister K Shanmugam had opined last year that legislation against fake news was a “no brainer”. However, according to the Terms of Reference, the Select Committee was set up to examine possible measures that can be taken to combat online falsehoods. A plain reading shows that legislation is just one possible option, not a foregone conclusion.

We therefore urge the Committee to keep an open mind and listen to all submissions and suggestions before coming to any conclusions. The hearings are not legal battles, and participants who volunteer their time to give testimony shouldn’t be treated like adversaries undergoing cross examination.

 

Image source: https://www.theonlinecitizen.com/2018/03/01/

Submission on the Singapore government’s plan to regulate fake news

The following submission was sent to the Select Committee in response to their call for views on the enactment of a law to combat “fake news”. 

Overview

On January 5, 2018, the Ministry of Law presented a Green Paper titled “Deliberate Online Falsehoods: Challenges and Implications”. This came amid strong hints from the Singapore government that it was planning to introduce legislation aimed at combating “fake news”.

The Community Action Network believes fake news is not a major issue in Singapore, and that there are enough safeguards in place to deal with potential problems. Rather than introduce more legislation, the government should grant Singaporeans the right resources and tools to identify fake news.

We would like to point out that Singapore’s mainstream media has been complicit in helping the government to perpetuate dubious allegations, which can count as “fake news”. For example, it parroted the PAP government’s position that there was a “Marxist Conspiracy” in 1987. This allegation has never been proven.

“Fake News” – A Genuine Scourge?

 According to the Green Paper:

“Around the world, falsehoods are being deliberately spread online, to attack public institutions and individuals. The aim is to sow discord amongst racial and religious communities, exploit fault-lines, undermine public institutions, interfere in elections as well as other democratic processes, and weaken countries.”

Examples raised focus primarily on events in the US and Europe, with Indonesia being the sole Asian country mentioned, other than Singapore.

The Green Paper asserts that we, as a nation, are vulnerable because we are one of the most open and globally connected countries in the world. We are also multi-racial and religiously diverse, and a “key strategic node international finance, trade, travel and communications, and a key player in ASEAN. The paper also cites the possibility foreign actors might wish to “destabilise” us.

CAN submits that the scenarios put forth are too diverse and haphazardly drawn together, and the definition of “fake news” too vague for Singaporeans to be convinced that we are facing a credible threat.  For instance, in point 78, two cases – the Singapore Herald and Eastern Sun –  are cited as examples of “foreign interference”. And yet, the paper doesn’t provide details on why the two publications were shut down, or explain that their closures were controversial. This is ironic, given the aim of the Green Paper.

The mainstream media still produces most of the news and information on Singapore. As it is controlled by the government and the ruling party, any misinformation can be easily dealt with. Indeed the mainstream media often carries rebuttals and clarifications by the government prominently in all of its reports. Concerns about not being able to tackle falsehoods have no basis in reality. Therefore, there is no credible evidence that new laws to tackle fake news is necessary.

The case of The Real Singapore was also raised as an example of how online publications can spread fake news. However, we note that owners of The Real Singapore were prosecuted and dealt with, and the site no longer exists. Furthermore, no similar problems have since arisen, it is logical to conclude that existing laws are sufficient in dealing with “fake news”.

In any case, we believe that the argument against so-called “foreign influence” is a superfluous one. It assumes that Singaporeans are gullible and easily manipulated. This cannot be the case, given our world-class education system, and the fact that we are a globally connected city.

Moreover, our government is arguably more susceptible to “foreign influence” than ordinary citizens. The recent case in which we agreed to not cane alleged robber David Roach because of pressure from the United Kingdom, is an example.

Finally, we note also that in the US, President Donald Trump has used the label “fake news” to discredit credible news outlets. We urge the government not to go down the same route.

More transparency needed

 In March 2017, socio-political news website The Online Citizen (TOC) ran a report regarding a complaint it had received, that police had accused a reader’s 80-year-old wheelchair-bound father of stealing a motorcycle. The Singapore Police responded a day later claiming that TOC had made “false allegations” against the SPF.

However, in response, TOC said it had written to the police two months earlier, and had received no reply. It added that had it received a response, it would have included that in its article. (https://mothership.sg/2017/03/heres-a-timeline-of-events-regarding-the-story-of-the-80-year-old-man-and-the-motorcycle/)

CAN is of the opinion that the Singapore Police Force jumped the gun in accusing TOC of creating “false allegations”. Any misunderstanding could have been avoided with a timely response to TOC’s enquiry. Writing to parties accused of bad behavior, is after all, standard practice for any credible news organisation. The police, and indeed all government bodies in Singapore, should understand that the best way to combat fake news is to treat all such queries as legitimate, and respond in an open, transparent manner.

Existing laws already regulate free speech. 

1) There is sufficient legislation in Singapore to deal with online falsehoods. Indeed some of these laws are oppressive and impede free speech. For example, owners of The Real Singapore were successfully prosecuted under the Sedition Act.

2) The Telecommunications Act makes it an offence for any “message” which the person knows to be fake to be transmitted.

Section 45 of The Telecommunications Act says:

  1. Any person who transmits or causes to be transmitted a message which he knows to be false or fabricated shall be guilty of an offence and shall be liable on conviction
  2. a) In the case where the false or fabricated message contains any reference to the presence in any place or location of a bomb or other thing liable to explode or ignite, to a fine not exceeding $50,000 or to imprisonment for a term not exceeding 7 years or to both; and
  3. b) in any other case, to a fine not exceeding $10,000 or to imprisonment for a term not exceeding 3 years or to both.

3) The Media Development Authority’s (MDA) Licensing Framework allows the government to order news sites to remove content it deems objectionable. Online news sites which report an average of at least one article per week on Singapore news and current affairs over a period of two months, and are visited by at least 50,000 unique IP addresses from Singapore each month over the same period of two months have to remove content which is in breach of content standards within 24 hours and post a performance bond of $50,000.

4) For acts that incite racial unrest, or harms religious feelings, there is the Sedition Act and Maintenance of Religious Harmony Act.

Recommendations 

  1. Encourage more transparency from all arms of the government.
  2. Legitimate queries from news organisations should be answered promptly, and treated in good faith.
  3. Address falsehoods propagated by the government, such as the “Marxist Conspiracy”.
  4. Enact a “Freedom of Information Act” so citizens can have access to information, and be empowered to ask questions.
  5. Review the Newspaper and Printing Presses Act – unshackle the mainstream media and allow for genuine competition so that information flows are not monopolised by entities controlled by the government.
  6. Teach media literacy skills. The best way to combat fake news is to encourage critical thinking.

 

 

Amendments to law enhance government’s power to detain without trial

Extension of the Criminal Law (Temporary Provisions) Act (CLTPA) for another five years.

Function 8, Community Action Network and Think Centre oppose the extension of the CLTPA for the 14th time under the Criminal Law (Temporary Provisions) (Amendment) Bill No. 5/2018.

The CLTPA was  enacted in 1955 when Singapore was partially independent. It was meant as a temporary measure “to strengthen the law against those who seek to overthrow the lawfully elected Government by violence, or who seek to subvert the minds of the people by intimidation, away from genuine democracy and constitutional advance to self-government, to the rule of fear and to ultimate Communist domination.” (Chief Secretary, Mr W A C Goode).

At the time of its enactment Mr Goode said:

“These measures, we think, are necessary during a period of immaturity in understanding and practising democracy to safeguard us from the dangers that beset us on the path to maturity. We hope, therefore, that they will no longer be needed after that period and, accordingly, all these various matters have been put together into this one Bill which, by sub-clause 2 of clause 1, is to remain in force for a period of only three years. As the title of the Bill indicates, these are temporary additions to our criminal laws.” (Legislative Assembly debates 21 Sept 1955).

It is regretted that under the PAP government, Singapore has remained a politically immature country for the past 52 years. The government continues to rely on this draconian law to govern and indeed, over the years had deemed it fit to extend its power over ordinary crimes which are already taken care of by the arsenal of legislation existing today.

The CLTPA has serious consequences for the people of Singapore. The amendment bill has even more serious implications for law abiding citizens. From its original intent of dealing with alleged communists, its application has been extended to criminal activities of secret societies, unlicensed moneylending and drug trafficking after it was no longer possible to use the communist threat as a reason. By this amendment, the application of the law will extend to human trafficking, robbery with firearms, murder, gang rape, kidnapping, organised crimes (under the Organised Crime Act 2015) and attempt to carry out, abet or being a party to all the aforesaid named crimes (see Fourth Schedule). For each of these crimes, there are already existing laws – Penal Code, Kidnapping Act, Public Order Act, Firearms and Ammunition (Unlawful Possession) Act etc.

Similar to the Internal Security Act, the CLTPA allows indefinite detention without trial under the hand of the minister with the consent of the public prosecutor. Under the amendment bill, anyone who is arrested and imprisoned indefinitely will be deprived of his right to pursue judicial review before the High Court. We take strong objection to the deprivation of this right.

We oppose judicial power being given to the minister and public prosecutor in the guise of being “satisfied that it is necessary that the person be detained in the interests of public security, peace and good order”. (section 30(1)(a) of the CLTPA.)  We believe in the separation of powers as guaranteed by the Constitution of the Republic of Singapore. The power to order detention should only be exercised by our judiciary after a full open trial. Our judges should also have the power to conduct judicial review of abuse of power by the executive.

We are utterly dismayed that our government, despite its decades of experience in governing Singapore has deemed it necessary to punish the people of Singapore in this abusive manner by continuing to retain this unjust temporary law and indeed, by making it even more detrimental with the various amendments it enacted in the past and this amendment.

We call upon all members of parliament to oppose this amendment bill and to propose the abolition of the Criminal Law (Temporary Provisions) Act for the reason that Singapore today has more than sufficient laws to take care of all offences under the CLTPA  and that judicial powers should only be exercised by our judiciary and not the executive.

We urge Singaporeans to scrutinise the proceedings of parliament and demand that parliamentary debates be live-streamed so that everyone can know what is happening in parliament starting from the debate of this shameless amendment bill.

Image source: https://sfaw.wordpress.com/2011/05/27/no-process-through-courts-no-rule-of-law/

 

 

Repeal the Films Act and Withdraw the Proposed Bill: CAN & F8

A draconian piece of legislation like the Films Act enacted in 1981 has no place in any first world country, let alone one that hopes to position itself as a hub for the arts. It criminalises filmmakers, entertainment owners and organisations who make “party political films” and documentaries. It affords no distinction between these filmmakers and those who make obscene films.

Under the current act, the wording is broad and virtually anyone sharing any filmed material that might have a political message can be penalised. The penalties are exceptionally severe ranging from $100 per film to $100,000 and imprisonment. We question the intent of legislature in imposing such punishments.

In justifying the restrictions, a spokesperson for the Ministry of Information, Communications and Arts said this in May 2005:

“Party political films’ are disallowed because they are an undesirable medium for political debate in Singapore. They can present political issues in a sensational manner, evoking emotional rather than rational reactions, without affording the opportunity for a meaningful rebuttal or explanation to audience and viewers.”

The explanation made no sense then, and continues to make no sense today. Singaporeans are not irrational beings, incapable of discernment – the law is an insult to our people’s intelligence.

The proposed amendments to the Films Act expands the definitions of terms, enlarges the scope of work of film censors, increases the types of offences, and empowers IMDA officers to raid premises (a job which we doubt such officers want to be burdened with).

There is nothing in the proposed amendments to assure the public that these officials are well qualified to review and rate films independently. Furthermore, raids should be carried out by police officers in possession of a proper warrant, not civil servants.

We are also appalled that the government is exempted from the provisions of the law (both in the original Act and in the proposed amendment). In today’s context, we are literally a one-party state. Under the law, the ruling party will thus be free to make party political films without fear of infringing the law. This is totally unacceptable and against public interest.

The proposed amendments to the Films Act appoint the minister as the final arbiter of   disputes especially those that allegedly concern “national security”. The minister represents the government and is clearly not an independent person. He has more important functions to perform than to be involved in policing films.

We urge the government to withdraw the proposed bill and repeal the Films Act 1981. By all means, categorise films fit for children and adults but let Singaporeans make up their own minds about party political films.

 

Community Action Network

Function 8

Image source: http://singaporerebel.blogspot.sg/2006/08/singapore-rebel-saga-ends-after-police.html

Art is Not a Crime – Joint Statement by CAN and Function 8

22181411_840285242815118_5010771760527944355_o

Police arrest artist Seelan Palay following a peaceful performance outside Parliament House. Photo courtesy of TOC

Function 8 and Community Action Network (CAN) are deeply troubled and saddened by the arrest of artist Seelan Palay outside Parliament House on Sunday, 1 Oct 2017. He has been released on police bail since yesterday and is subjected to severe restrictions including restrictions on travels.

Seelan Palay was merely practising his profession as an artist when he demonstrated how a free mind cannot be constrained by space such as Hong Lim Park. The video at http://www.facebook.com/theonlinecitizen/videos/10155815921176383 illustrates his free spiritedness when he started his performance in the muddy park of Hong Lim and walked along South Bridge Road to his destinations at City Hall (now National Gallery) and Parliament House where he was arrested.

All along the way, there was no agitated crowd or violence. Artist Seelan Palay’s demeanour throughout his journey was that of a serious art practitioner. He did not indulge in words except to briefly explain his art and answer questions posed to him by police officers.

Article 14 of our Constitution guarantees freedom of speech, expression, assembly and association. We do not see any harm or damage that can be caused to Singapore by artist Seelan Palay’s performance. Indeed his artistic performance contributes to the making of Singapore as a city of art and culture. His performance definitely does not warrant his arrest.

Further, bystanders watching artist Seelan Palay’s performance and ultimate arrest were intimidated and harassed by police officers who demanded their personal identity card particulars. This is totally illegal and should cease immediately as Singapore is not at war or under a state of emergency.

We call upon the Singapore police to cease harassment and intimidation of activists and release artist Seelan Palay from all restrictions.

Function 8 and Community Action Network