By: John Berthelsen

Some 42 domestic and international journalists have signed an open letter to S Iswaran, Singapore’s Communications and Information Minister, expressing concern over government plans to push through a draconian “fake news” bill that they say would stifle press freedom.

“We write in our personal capacity as journalists covering issues about or related to Singapore,” according to the letter. “Your government recently unveiled plans to pass sweeping legislation aimed at combating so-called ‘fake news.’ This is deeply alarming. Attempts to deal with misinformation and disinformation should not result in draconian laws that encourage self-censorship and undermine press freedom, which is already in peril in Singapore.

The Protection from Online Falsehoods and Manipulation Bill tabled in Parliament on 1 April, the journalists said, “is too broad and too vaguely worded. It affects even individuals and organizations operating outside Singapore, so long as their content can be accessed by people within the country. It allows ministers to decide what constitutes a “falsehood” and empowers them to demand that posts be taken offline, access to websites blocked, or for correction notices to be posted. Equally concerning is S.61, which grants ministers the right to exempt anyone from any provision of the act.

The rest of the letter continues: “In effect, the proposed law makes any minister an arbiter of truth. While appeals to the courts are allowed, such proceedings can be time-consuming, intimidating and costly. Most news organizations are already struggling in an increasingly difficult environment. Few will have the resources or stomach needed to launch a legal challenge.

“Furthermore, orders issued by a minister have to be followed even if an appeal is underway. Failure to do so can result in hefty fines and lengthy jail terms. Equally disturbing is that under the proposed legislation, directives can be issued even if only a small part of the statement in question is inaccurate. This means that hypothetically, a minister unhappy with a report written about him or her, can demand that the entire article be removed over a minor inaccuracy.

“While attempts to counter misinformation and disinformation should be lauded, the bill fails to take into account the realities on the ground. Journalists regularly file stories as situations develop and facts are still emerging. In some cases, contradictory accounts of an event are not unusual and the truth might only become clear over an extended period of time.

“By failing to distinguish between a malicious falsehood and a genuine mistake, the proposed legislation places an unnecessarily onerous burden on even journalists acting in good faith. Such a law will hinder rather than encourage the free flow of accurate information. News organizations might feel compelled to withhold important stories simply because certain facts cannot be fully ascertained. This is especially likely in Singapore where it is often not possible to get a response in time from the government.

“Law and Home Affairs Minister K Shanmugam has stated repeatedly that the proposed legislation will apply only to statements of fact, not opinions. However, the distinction is not always clear. Opinion writers regularly cite facts to back up their positions, and a journalist’s interpretation and presentation of a set of facts might contradict a minister’s own understanding of what took place.

“Finally, we note that when Minister Shanmugam was asked if the proposed law might be abused, his response was that he cannot vouch for how future governments will act. This is instructive and highly disturbing. In the wrong hands, legislation such as the one under discussion, can be misused for selfish gain. No government or minister – good or bad – should be allowed to wield such broad powers. The bill should be withdrawn pending a genuine and robust discussion on how best to combat “fake news.”

Journalists who wish to join the protest can use this form to sign.

The signatories so far include Clare Rewcastle Brown of Sarawak Report, former Reuters Deputy Bureau Chief in Bangkok Andrew MacGregor Marshall, award-winning former Al Jazeera English journalist Steve Chao, former BBC, CNN and Al Jazeera English anchor Veronica Pedrosa, former Fortune correspondent Eric Ellis and Hong Kong Free Press Chief Editor and co-founder Tom Grundy, Asia Sentinel editor in chief John Berthelsen, and others.

  1. Atossa Araxia Abrahamian
  2. Drew Ambrose
  3. Nick Aspinwall
  4. John Berthelsen
  5. Nile Bowie
  6. Derek Cai
  7. Steve Chao
  8. Eric Ellis
  9. Nonoy Espina
  10. Karen Gwee
  11. Tom Grundy
  12. Christine Hah
  13. Kirsten Han
  14. Bhavan Jaipragas
  15. Parkaran Krishnan Kutty
  16. Lynn Lee
  17. James Leong
  18. Andrew MacGregor Marshall
  19. Nop Vy
  20. Jules Rahman Ong
  21. James Palmer
  22. Veronica Pedrosa
  23. Clare Rewcastle Brown
  24. Carlos Sardiña Galache
  25. Tin Tin Nyo
  26. Sara Webb
  27. Julia Yeow

 

Additional signatures (added after the letter was sent)

 

  1. Nyshka Chandran
  2. Erin Cook
  3. Peter Guest
  4. Seulki Lee
  5. Emily Liu
  6. Zoe Low Zi Qing
  7. Matthew Miller
  8. Daniel Peters
  9. Jon Russell
  10. Sonia Sarkar
  11. Alan Soon
  12. Calum Stuart
  13. Kenneth Tan
  14. Waleed Tariq
  15. Darren Wan