The impending regulations on fake news and why there should be a line

Minister for Home Affairs, K Shanmugam said in Parliament on Monday (3 April) that the Singapore Police Force (SPF) will look into the allegations made against them about a case of an 80-year-old wheelchair-bound man accused of motorcycle theft by them. Mr Shanmugam said the SPF will issue a response if it is untrue.

Member of Parliament (MP), Mr Lim Biow Chuan had asked the Minister for Home Affairs whether the police will consider taking action to protect its reputation when persons make false and malicious allegations against the police.

The Minister said that the police is looking into taking action against allegations made against SPF for profit when Mr Lim asked if making “false and malicious allegations” against the police will become a punishable offence.

In his speech, the Minister cited an article on The Online Citizen, stating that the article had alleged that the police accused a wheelchair-bound man of motorcycle theft and that the police corrected the allegation within a day.

However, the Minister in his speech, did not mention that the Police Force did not respond to queries made by TOC for three days before the publication of the story.

Also, the police did not dispute that there had been such an incident with the elderly man or that the story is an account from the daughter who shared the story with TOC. It merely contested the allegation that the officers accused the elderly man of being the culprit of the motor theft.

Both the police and the Minister failed to mention that the story was an account of the incident given by the daughter who shared it with TOC, just like how Madam Gertrude Simon shared her story with Straits Times about her mother being handcuffed and put in leg restraints by the police, which was later disproved by a joint statement from SPF and the Singapore Prison Service (SPS).

Had the police been forthcoming with its response, the article would have included its statement that the officers did not accuse the elderly man of the crime as the daughter claimed, just as what any media outlet would rightfully have done. This is not to say that the SPF or any other governing bodies have a duty to immediately respond to every query and email that comes their way. However, ignoring queries entirely and accusing media outlets subsequently of practicing unethical reporting is not a sign of transparency or good governance.

The stark contrast of being called out by the Minister between the two media outlets: ST and TOC 

In a letter to The Straits Times published on 15 March, Madam Gertrude Simon said that she was deeply saddened and shocked by the events that took place on 4 March.

Mdm Simon wrote, “My mother is 73 years old, frail, and suffers from a host of medical conditions. That morning, she went to the Ang Mo Kio South Neighbourhood Police Centre to report a lost pawn shop ticket”.

“However, the officer-in-charge informed her that there was a warrant of arrest issued against her in 2015 for failing to appear for a court hearing on a town council-related matter.”

She then related on how her mother was handcuffed and put in leg restraints, and her family wasn’t informed by the police because the woman was stressed and overwhelmed and was unable to recall the contact details of any of her relatives.

That night itself, SPS and SPF issued a joint statement stating that the mother was not restrained by the police, and it was done only when she was transferred to prison as part of standard procedures.

“Throughout her time with the police, Madam Simon’s mother was not restrained, and was offered food and water. She did not show any sign of being traumatised, and was alert when in police custody,” the joint statement added.

In this case, why did the police not issue a statement via Facebook post to indicate that the Straits Times had falsely accused the police of things that did not happen?

In the post that TOC published, the circumstances were similar. TOC merely republished the person’s statement after double confirming with her that the incident had actually occurred.

Why wasn’t ST subjected to the same allegations made by the Ministry of Home Affairs?

The Ministry’s stand on responding to online platforms

During the Parliamentary discussion on Benjamin Lim’s case, Dr Intan Azura Mokhtar, MP for Ang Mo Kio GRC had asked if the Ministry of Home Affairs could be more responsive and open to sharing information in both print and online news media so as to make verifications or to dispel accusations that were floating around.

In response to her questions, Mr Shanmugam said, “I have spent quite a bit of time explaining why in this case, we actually decided not to go into the facts. I think it would be unseemly for this matter to get to a stage where there are a series of allegations and counter allegations, and statements and counter statements with the families, the commentators, the police – you will have a “free for all”. That is precisely what legal proceedings are intended to avoid. We will have a proper process for finding out the facts. Otherwise, who is to say my truth is superior to your truth? I think we were right, we were observing the law but others were not so careful. In fact, they were cavalier and which has then required us to come out today and clarify.”

Immediately after that, Ms Jesscia Tan Soon Neo, MP for East Coast GRC stood and asked on the same matter, she said, “On the same track as Member Intan has asked with regards to online reports, I think we cannot ignore the fact that the online media plays a very important part in communication and in situations like that and it is very emotive and sensitive, while I totally understand your stance of handling the information very carefully and the sensitivity of sharing the information, is there a way that information, at least some information can be shared with online news sites in a way that would help at least not continue to fire these emotions in respect of the families? I know it is a very hard balance. The other thing is also, should online websites obtain and verify information of this nature before they post such articles?”

Mr Shanmugam replied, “I thank Ms Tan for that. But that sort of reverses the onus. It is not for them to make the allegations and then for us to respond. The law is the same on reporting before a pending hearing or inquiry, whether it is a physical world or online world, the law of contempt is the same. Everyone should observe it. Just because you are online does not mean that you get a free pass and you can say what you like. So, we start with what is the law. As I said, you can raise some general issues; you can raise the issue of policy, whether in the media, physical media, print media, broadcast media or online media. What you cannot do is to make allegations of fact when those facts could be the subject matter of dispute or have to be found in an inquiry or would necessarily be part of what an inquiry would have to decide. It is even egregious when they are a bunch of lies.”

Killing stories by keeping silent

Every news publication or media outlet will have a certain modus operandi when working to push out articles. For most, when it concerns individuals or governing bodies with happenings on the ground, the network will strive to do its checks and balances and write to relevant authorities and individuals to ascertain facts, get opinions or quotes, or unearth the truth. Is it justified then, if a media outlet tries to seek inputs from two or three relevant parties involved in an incident to provide a balanced view on the matter but is forced to kill the story because one party refuses to answer?

It is one thing to ignore TOC’s queries if the Ministry of Home Affairs does not recognise the website as a media outlet, but another when it accuses it of unethical reporting after the stories gain traction from the public.

Impending legislation to address “fake news”

In his speech on 3 April on another question regarding fake news in Singapore, Mr Shanmugam shared that the government is “seriously considering” how to address fake news and will announce its position upon completion of a review.

He pointed to defunct The Real Singapore (TRS) as a website that regularly generated fake news for profit as well as referring to States Times Review website which also operates outside of Singapore with the same slant on its publication.

While it is prudent to look into addressing false claims made against individuals or organisations to prevent malicious attacks on one’s reputation and misinformation to the public, one need to also look at the kinds of articles produced by TOC to understand that TOC does not engage in such antics. The website generates income from advertisement via page views. The definition of profit in this case will surely be subjective.

Though TRS reportedly earned on average S$24,000 a month during its course of operation via advertisements on its “fake news”, websites like TOC only earn an average of less than S$1,000 a month on advertisement, barely enough to break even if not for donations or sponsorships.

It is imperative that the proposed bill considers multiple factors in determining the elements that would constitute fake news generated for profit, or to stir unrest among the public. Factors such as exercising due diligence in seeking clarification of information, giving the right to respond, and the fundamental dependence on advertisements in articles for publications to survive are factors that should be applauded for media outlets to maintain their role of being a Fourth Estate, and not condemned.