Below is the statement issued by Community Action Network, a local human rights non-government organisation in Singapore.
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.