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Fake news laws should have a ‘narrow focus’, media debate in Singapore hears

Governments around the world are among the worst at propagating ‘fake news’ and must not be allowed to muzzle respected organisations in the ongoing battle to combat the spread of malicious and false information, a panel discussion heard at the 2018 International Media Conference in Singapore this week.

Any new legislation should apply to everyone – including the governments drawing up the laws – and not apply simply to opponents of the state, it was said in discussions at the partly government-funded event hosted by the East-West Centre.

During the dialogue on how to tackle fake news, the editor-in-chief of The Straits Times, Warren Fernandez, urged the government here in Singapore not to draw up sweeping legislation that would further tie the hands of media organisations.

The remarks came as the Singapore government prepares a report, and possible legilsation, following an eight-day Select Committee hearing held in March to discuss ‘deliberate online falsehoods’. Asked about the potential impacts on press freedom, Fernandez said it was impossible to tell until the “shape and form” of any new legislation became clear.

While accepting there were gaps in existing legislation, he told fellow panelist Dr Janil Puthucheary, the Singapore minister of communications and information, that he could not offer a “blank cheque” of support until the full extent of the laws were known.

“We have looked at the laws that we have and the government has quite considerable powers, but there are gaps in those powers,” he said. “If a law is drafted, which is narrowly focused on addressing content distributors and getting them to take responsibility for some of their content we would support it.

“But general broad-sweep legislation, we have concerns with. There are legitimate concerns in the newsroom. We don’t want legislation that is so sweeping and so broad that it impedes the flow of information and hampers our ability to put out good information.”

George said governments were capable of harmful disinformation

Professor Cherian George, an academic at the department of journalism at Hong Kong Baptist University, agreed that new legislation tabled by any government must be “narrowly-tailored” so that it did not “unwittingly or deliberately catch speech that should be regarded as legitimate”.

It was important to scrutinise the “small print”, ensuring the punishment fitted the crime and “not let governments off the hook” – he claimed.

“Penalties should be proportionate to the expected harm and not jail bloggers for 10 years as does happen in some parts of Asia,” George added. “The law should also not play favourites. It should not only apply to opponents of the state. It should apply to government itself.

“It is extremely important to bear that in mind, given history shows us that the single institution that is capable of the most harmful disinformation will be your own government.”

Governments are sometimes “vectors of the problem” he said, adding that relying on legislation raised the prospect of the state being the “cop and judge of a problem that might be of their own making”. George added that Asian governments had “bad records” of drawing up narrow and unfair laws. It was important not to give any government a “blank cheque”, he said.

Turning to the topic of the Select Committee hearing here in this country, George said he was “disappointed” that the mainstream media – including Singapore Press Holdings and Mediacorp – appeared to be appealing for the government to “tie the hands” of online players when they should have been asking for more autonomy and independence for themselves.

“To me the rational and responsible proposal should have been ‘please untie our hands a little bit so that we can tackle the disinformation problem with more credibility’.”

Fernandez said SPH had argued for a level playing field

Fernandez rejected the criticism, arguing SPH had lobbied for a level playing field rather than for others to be reeled in. Meanwhile, Puthucheary told the conference that “robust discussion” surrounding any potential new legislation would continue.

“Once the report is out we expect the discussion to continue because that will be translated into action by the government,” he said. He insisted that the government wanted to “preserve the space for comedy, satire and free flowing discourse”.

“Whether legislative or non legislative it will be concentrated on the very outrageous end of the spectrum where there are very real world effects on a handful of domains that we feel are pertinent to our society – race and religion and language and issues of national security and interest,” he added.

Alvin Tan, head of public policy for Facebook Singapore and Malaysia, argued that while some forbidden content was often easy to identify and remove – pornography, child exploitation images and  terrorism – making judgments on content that was opinion, satire or analysis “gets difficult”.

He told the discussion that Facebook “errs on the side of caution” and reduced distribution of potentially dubious content rather than removing it altogether.

“It requires a lot of signals from the community, from third-party fact-checkers and journalists who let us know the [piece of content] may be inauthentic and we will reduce the distribution,” he said.

Tan said it was crucial that all stakeholders worked together to solve the problem. And Puthucheary said Facebook was an engineering and technology company at its core and should, therefore, have the ability to better manage where content was distributed.

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