The recommendations made by the Select Committee on dealing with fake news are troubling .
The call for alternative news sites to adopt the professional journalistic standards of the “mainstream media” (taken to mean the Singapore Press Holdings and MediaCorp) to ensure “fairness, accuracy and integrity in reporting”, for example, cannot be taken seriously given our recent history.
The SPH and Mediacorp – both controlled by the government – have failed the fake-news test many times. Below are three examples:
Firstly, the SPH and the predecessors of Mediacorp described the activists arrested in 1987 as “Marxist conspirators out to violently overthrow the government”, even broadcasting the “confessions” of the detainees. No self-respecting newspaper or broadcaster would carry out such a sordid deed unquestioningly. So much for maintenance of “professional journalistic standards”.
The victims of the arrest have now come out in the open and challenged the veracity of the government's account (even PAP cabinet ministers have questioned this state action). Yet, our print and broadcast media has remained conspicuously silent over their roles in this abject affair.
Another example was during the Bukit Batok by-election in 2016. Lianhe Wanbao falsely quoted Dr Chee Soon Juan in an interview. Mr Lee Hsien Loong then used the quote to attack Dr Chee. The SDP challenged Wanbao's editors to reproduce the tape of the interview, but the newspaper has remained silent over the episode only making an online file correction once the misrepresentation was pointed out. The print version of the newspaper was, however, circulated.
The mainstream media, has also repeatedly through the decades, reported the falsehood propagated by PAP ministers that HDB-flat prices would never drop. We now know that this is not true and many Singaporeans are seriously affected.
How does the Select Committee propose to deal with these instances of well-documented fake news dissemination by the mainstream media? Instead of holding up SPH and Mediacorp as paragons of exemplary news organisations, Singaporeans want to know what does the Select Committee plan to do with fake news coming from these organisations?
Standards of journalism should not be bench-marked at the PAP's standards because, it goes without saying, the party has a vested interest in ensuring that the news is portrayed to its advantage.
It is no coincidence that the Chairman of the Board of SPH is former PAP minister Dr Lee Boon Yang and its English/Malay/Tamil language Editor-in-Chief is Mr Warren Fernandez who was nearly selected as a PAP candidate.
If there are journalistic standards to be maintained, they should be those prescribed by international organizations such as United Nations Educational, Scientific and Cultural Organization (UNESCO) or Reporters Sans Frontières (RSF; Reporters Without Borders). Incidentally, the press in Singapore ranks 151st out of 180 countries in the RSF's 2018 World Press Freedom Index – a position sandwiched between Ethiopia and Swaziland.
Perhaps, the most important recommendation that the Select Committee could have made, but didn't, is to repeal the Newspaper and Printing Presses Act (NPPA) to allow a diversity of ownership and operation of news companies in Singapore. This would allow appropriate peer checks and control of fake news without the PAP's monopoly of the print and broadcast media.
Also, if the Committee felt that it did not want to consider Dr Thum Ping Tjin's representation, it is free to do so. There is no need for the mainstream media to call him a liar in sensationalist headlines over the question of the exact terminology of his appointment at Oxford University. After all, the people who know Dr Thum best in a professional capacity have spoken highly of him as a Rhodes scholar and an internationally regarded academic. Resorting to name-calling is juvenile and does not reflect well on the Committee.
The Select Committee also recommends a “national framework for public education initiatives” that would include curriculum in schools.
The curriculum must necessarily include views from all sides of the socio-political spectrum, not just the PAP's. The present propaganda-type of indoctrination of our students must cease. To this end, opposition parties and civil society organisations should have access to students. Principles and tenets of the United Nations' Universal Declaration of Human Rights should also be taught in our schools.
Another important issue that the Select Committee has not dealt with is that even with the best crafted laws to combat fake news, it is the implementation of the laws that Singaporeans must be wary of.
A good example of this is the Cooling-off Day provision that prohibits campaigning the day before polling during elections. When PAP candidates were caught infringing the law (examples: Ms Tin Pei Ling and Dr Vivian Balakrishnan), either no action was taken or they were let off with warnings. But when Ms Teo Soh Lung, who commented on her Facebook as an individual on Cooling-off Day, the police raided her home and confiscated her computer which was only returned to her much later and in a damaged condition.
Singapore desperately needs to open up as society matures. The introduction of “fake news” laws without the concomitant removal of laws that stifle the freedom of the press will put the future of this country in peril.
This is especially crucial as the world enters the modern era of disruption and rapid change which will require an innovative and creative people to navigate, qualities that oppression and censorship cannot foster.
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