Striking a balance between fake news and freedom of expression – possible?

Photo: Facebook / Alvin Tan

At a panel discussion on fighting fake news, Senior Minister of State for Communications and Information Janil Puthucheary said that The Select Committee on Deliberate Online Falsehoods was still considering recommendations and suggestions given in order to ensure all the concerns of those involved were addressed.

The panel discussion was held on Monday, during the opening of the East-West Centre’s international media conference titled, ‘What Is News Now?’

One of the main concerns of the committee is to reduce the spread and prevalence of fake news, while still allowing for journalistic freedom of expression.

Dr Puthucheary said, “We are sharpening and shaping our response to make sure we hit the right point where it remains possible for people to come into the space and generate new products; it remains possible for journalists to engage in their profession with an increasing degree of seriousness and confidence that their platforms will be trusted; that there is room for disagreement, satire, comedy and commentary”.

He continued, “We want to get the right blending point on this, so that’s why we’re taking our time”.

Dr Puthucheary also told reporters that The Select Committee’s report would be out later this year, after being presented to Parliament for debate. The committee received a total of 170 written submissions before public hearings and heard evidence from 65 speakers.

Citing a major issue for journalists, Mr Warren Fernandez, editor of The Straits Times said, “A significant and legitimate concern is that if the proposed law is too broad and sweeping, it might constrain the ability of news organisations to operate”.

Alvin Tan, Facebook’s head of public policy for Asean, Malaysia and Singapore, addressed concerns brought about with the implementation of laws and legislation, and said that the latter “imperfect tool”. He explained, “We’ve made it quite clear… that if there is going to be legislation, we want to make sure we get the legislation correct in terms of its scope, its intent, its powers”.

On the issue, Professor Cherian George from the Department of Journalism at the Hong Kong Baptist University, Facebook Head of Public Policy for ASEAN said “Unfortunately… Asian governments, including Singapore, have a particularly bad record of writing laws that are narrow, that are proportionate and that are fair. So this is why… we need to not give any government a blank cheque and scrutinise whatever bills that are tabled”.

He also added that local press should have asked for more autonomy and independence in dealing with deliberate online falsehoods, “I think you do need additional freedom, you do. It’s shocking that in Singapore – unlike most parts of Asia – it’s people outside the press that are telling the press, please, have more freedom. For some reason the press doesn’t want to echo that”.