By Gordon Lee and Howard Lee
On Tuesday, 3 June, Minister for Communications and Information Yaacob Ibrahim shared on his Facebook page a Financial Times article about a ruling by the European Court of Human Rights (ECtHR) concerning the responsibility of commercial websites over comments by visitors.
Dr Ibrahim’s analysis of the case was that even in free Europe, the Courts have placed a limit to freedom of speech, requiring websites to moderate online comments. He concludes that the “right to speak freely and responsibly must go together”.
This was promptly re-shared on the same day by Prime Minister Lee Hsien Loong on his Facebook page, possibly in a bid to recover from the major embarrassment of his legal opponent, blogger Roy Ngerng, having exceeded his $70,000 target to raise funds for his legal battle with the PM, all within an unprecedented period of four days.
It is worth thinking about what the Financial Times would make of the Singapore Government using its article to call for “responsible” (a euphemism for “censored”) speech, given that the company had to pay libel damages of an undisclosed amount to Lee and his father in 2007.
Bad reading, or bad writing?
Unfortunately, both the PM and Dr Ibrahim chose to read too much into the case. For one, the decision by ECtHR has been criticised by companies, media, human rights groups, lawyers and professors. Moreover, the decision by ECtHR is currently being reconsidered, and another judgement will be passed on the 9 July. Would our Ministers change their tunes if the judgement was revised?
It is also quite telling that the article itself clearly indicated this strong push from human rights advocates against the ruling, a point that both Ministers neglected to mention:
“In January, responding to the implications of this ruling, a group of media organisations, internet companies, human rights groups and academic institutions sent an open letter to Dean Spielmann, a 51-year-old judge and president of the ECtHR, warning that the judgment could lead to “serious adverse repercussions for . . . democratic openness in the digital era”. The 69 signatories included Google, Guardian News and Media, the Daily Beast, PEN International, and the World Association of Newspapers and News Publishers (of which the Financial Times is a member).
What web publishers fear is that the failure of Delfi’s appeal might represent such a landmark case that, if followed, it could both strike a blow to freedom of expression online and open a Pandora’s box of people and companies demanding compensation from publishers against people who post anonymously on their websites.”
On any ordinary day, such an omission would be sufficient grounds to disregard both Ministers for presenting such a one-sided and half-truth version of the issue. It is particularly ironic that the person who initiated this discussion is none other than the Information Minister.
However, we need to look beyond this and consider the implications for what this clearly deliberate narrative between the two was meant to achieve.
In his Facebook posting, Dr Ibrahim offered that “websites should anticipate the type of stories that may attract insulting comments – and be prepared to remove them promptly, or even pre-moderate any comment it publishes.” He ended his post with the view that “The right to speak freely and responsibly must go together”.
PM Lee agreed with Dr Ibrahim on the need for websites to “anticipate this trolling and flaming”. He was also of the view that, “This is a tough problem to solve, but we need to develop our own ways to keep online conduct civil and constructive.”
Both Ministers have made clear indication that the problem lies with “irresponsible online comments” (Dr Ibrahim) and “ online conduct” that needs to be “civil and constructive” (PM Lee). It would not be too difficult to imagine that their views reflected the Singapore government’s stubborn determination to dictate what should and should not be considered appropriate in online conversations.
We should be wary of this position, as the PM has clearly indicated that “we need to develop our own ways” to resolve a “tough problem”. The hints of regulation are strong, particularly given that we are likely to see the upcoming revisions to the Broadcasting Act focus more specifically on online media.
Would the case of Ngerng vs the PM be used as a “teachable moment” to enforce stricter regulation on online speech? We can only guess, but the tone of both Ministers suggest that this could be a distinctive possibility.
Some have said that Ngerng might be a lightning rod for the public’s displeasure towards the government. We can only hope that he does not become the convenient conductor for the further tightening of online regulations.
Meanwhile, if PM Lee and Dr Ibrahim are keen to learn from others, perhaps they should look to their counterparts in the rest of the world and learn to be more statesman-like. Suing an ordinary citizen is the last thing that any head of government in any other part of the world that values constructive and civilised conversations would do.
Images montage – from Facebook pages of Lee Hsien Loong and Yaacob Ibrahim