On Sunday (28 April), a gathering was held at Hong Lim Park where members of the public voiced their concerns over the proposed Protection from Online Falsehoods and Manipulation Act. The two hour event was moderated by Kwan Yue Keng and say speakers including lawyer turned advocat Khush Chopra, former politician and founder of Asia Centre Dr James Gomez, media professional and political activist Brad Bowyer, and activist and former social worker Chan Wai Han. The crowd was about 250 strong of young and old alike.
A trust deficit
A common thread that all four speakers touched on was trust or rather the lack of trust that the proposed fake news law with its ‘draconian punishments’ won’t be misused by the government to further their own political agenda.
Mrs Chan noted that while the proposed law will likely be passed, ‘we must make a stand and speak truth unto power’. If a society is not able to say what they want, it only spells trouble.
Mr Leong used the example of the government’s reluctance to share information and official statistics on many things including financial break downs of HDB or detailed information about MediShield or CareShielf. “They often forget to tell you what is the real news, or the news that you need to know”, he said.
During the Q&A session, it was noted that the lack of trust in the government is partly because of the lack of access the public is granted to official information, especially when it comes to financial information, said Mr Bowyer. “Because they keep so much hidden, there is this natural level of distrust,” he added. He suggested that a more open government would go a long way to improving that trust deficit.
Mr Kwan then highlighted the Freedom of Information Act in the US which allows citizens to apply to the government to seek information. There’s nothing similar available in Singapore.
Mr Chopra noted that POFMA gives the government “carte blanche the power to decide what’s true and what’s not and what’s in the public interest” and that we ought to be concerned with the use of laws such as this against the government’s critics.
The law will do more harm than good
When Dr Gomez took to the mic, the illustrated Singapore’s predicament in relation to other countries in Southeast Asia, nothing that almost 10 SEA countries have similar legislation and that these are generally focused on elections.
He said, “My preliminary assessment is fake news bills will lead to fake elections…not just fake elections but the whole ecosystem around elections becomes fake”.
There is a high risk in countries that pass such legislation of fake elections and a sham democracy, warned Dr Gomez. He pointed out that countries in the region which have passed similar laws do claim several reasons for such laws including the preservation of social harmony, reputation management, and the prevention of outside interference in elections.
Reputation management, says Dr Gomez is how governments have stayed in power for a long time. “They have stayed in power for a very, very long time by tweaking the political and electoral system where relevant”, he added. “And because of this, we have a trust deficit”.
He noted that the fake news law doesn’t resolve this trust issue between the government and people as the law and the problem are not co-related.
“Governments are using the fake news to attack their critics and they do so with impunity because governments are the biggest producers of fake news and propaganda. And yet they do not put themselves on the treadmill of law to be judged,” says Dr Gomez.
“This law is a severe limitation of our freedom of speech,” says Mr Chopra, adding that freedom of speech is the mother of all human rights. Without that, other rights become an illusion. “This law will literally be a most disturbing act of governmental interference in the public’s right to address their concerns”, he warned.
Mr Chopra added later that the proposed act will do more harm than good and urged that people should be concerned about the government’s ability to abuse the powers that it will get under this Act. “The way this act is constructed, it gives the government too much power and it can do more harm than good…you cannot allow so much power in one entity”, he continued.
Citizens are concerned over their right to free speech
Speaking to attendees at the event, it’s clear that the public also share this lack of trust over how the government will use this proposed legislation – which many are resigned will definitely be passed into law soon.
Beatrice, 24 said that her biggest concerned about POFMA is how the government could use it to criminalised critics online. They’re already doing so with existing laws and attacking smaller organisations and individuals, she added, and this law will simply extend that power.
“Even without the law there’s already an air of fear. So with this law, it’s definitely going to be very bad because many people are not able to voice out what they really feel,” added Peter.
Another 24 year old, Zhi Yi, who is looking to pursue a career in academia said she was concerned about how the law would restrict academic freedoms while 29 year old Manimaran was largely concerned with “PAP abusing the law to their benefit especially with elections looming”.
You can watch a video of the event and all the speeches here: