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/