Senior Minister of State for Law Edwin Tong (Tong) has, in an interview with TODAY, reaffirmed the government’s commitment to “combat online falsehoods” by suppressing their operations to prevent such “fake news “from circulating. While I understand that the perpetuation of genuine lies can have severe repercussions on society, I think that the government really needs to flesh out what it considers fake news. Is it just news that the government considers harmful to the public or is there going to be an objective standard? Without a crystal clear objective standard, how do we as a society ensure that the government will not misuse the label of “fake news” to take now news that it just doesn’t like as opposed to genuine falsehoods?
I am not suggesting that the government is intending to misuse the label. However, the potential for misuse will be there if there is no objective test set. In coming up with new laws, isn’t it the responsible thing to do to ensure that the laws are clear and incapable of misuse?
When pressed on the issue of the definition of “fake news”, Tong said that the definition of falsehoods has been set out in laws relating to defamation and civil frauds.
In the book, The Law of Contract in Singapore, edited by current Supreme Court Judge of Appeal Andrew Phang, he stated that a statement “is false when the facts as asserted do not correspond with the facts as they exist”. If this law is meant to apply to the general public, shouldn’t its explanation be more accessible to the average Joe instead of being tied up in legalistic hyperbole? Which layman is going to read The Law of Contract in Singapore or be familiar with what it says? Why not just spell it out clearly on government websites?
The lack of clarity could create an atmosphere of self-censorship which is harmful to not just to free speech but the rights of citizens to be kept informed by third-party objective sources.
The scary thing about the label “fake news” is that it can be used as a hammer against any information that could harm the government even if it may be beneficial to the general public. Which body will regulate the control of “fake news”? Will it be made up of a committee involving key members of the media (including online alternative media sites such as The Online Citizen and the like)? For something to be considered fair and above all, it cannot just involve The Straits Times (which has the reputation, whether rightly or wrongly) as the government’s mouthpiece and members of the government. It has to include prominent online journalists such as Kirsten Han to have a semblance of credibility.