Cease investigations of States Times Review and its editor

The Community Action Network disagrees with the government’s decision to initiate investigations on Mr Alex Tan, the editor of the website States Times Review. We also object to the Media Development Authority’s decision to block access to the website. While we do not approve of articles which contain falsehoods, it is disproportionate for the government to resort to criminal sanctions for speech which does not incite violence, hate and discrimination.

States Times Review was ordered by the Media Development Authority (MDA) to take down an article it published on 5 November titled, “Lee Hsien Loong becomes 1MDB’s key investigation target”. In a press release, the MDA justified the order on the grounds that the article “undermined public confidence in the integrity of the Singapore Government and is objectionable on grounds of public interest.” The Singapore government also requested facebook to take down the article on its site but was refused. This prompted the Law Ministry to issue a statement that “FB (Facebook) cannot be relied upon to filter falsehoods or protect Singapore from a false information campaign…this shows why we need legislation to protect us from deliberate online falsehoods.’

Community Action Network is concerned that any attempt to criminalise ‘fake news’ and force technology companies to take down objectionable content will end up controlling an already restrictive environment for independent and free journalism. The legal definition of ‘fake news’ may end up being too vague to prevent arbitrary interpretation. What is the threshold for what is considered false or true? It is especially worrying in a country like Singapore where the government and ruling party politicians will not hesitate to sue opposition politicians and prosecute critics. Criminalising ‘fake news’ will have a chilling effect and further entrench the stigma of engaging in critical political activities and discourse. It will also give those in power more ammunition to silence views they don’t agree with.

Research this year by political scientists from Princeton, Exeter and Dartmouth universities has shown that even though fake news has a wide reach, its impact is limited. The Singapore government has also not cited any local research to show that the impact of online falsehoods merits the creation of an anti fake news law. At the least, we need to have an empirical understanding of its impact before resorting to criminalising those who publish online falsehoods.

The government has already rebutted STR’s article and its press release was prominent in the mainstream media. Moreover, the fact that the authorities are able to order a take down, initiate criminal proceedings, and block access to the site shows that current provisions are more than sufficient to tackle the problem.

We urge the government to ensure that any legal response to online falsehoods adheres to international free expression standards, including only if it is necessary to ‘prohibit advocacy of hatred on protected grounds that constitutes incitement to violence, discrimination or hostility.’ These principles on how to respond to online falsehoods were elaborated by the United Nations, the Organization for Security and Co-operation in Europe (OSCE), the Organization of American States (OAS), and the African Commission on Human and Peoples’ Rights (ACHPR) in their 2017 Joint Declaration on Freedom of Expression and Fake News, Disinformation and Propaganda. Ultimately, the best way to combat online falsehoods is more transparency, freedom of information, the development of multi stakeholder fact checking websites and increased medial literacy.

Image source: https://www.facebook.com/STReview/photos/a.1599943643557154/1605467913004727/?type=3&theater

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