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/