Fake news bill: Media professionals favour fact-checking body, divided on its role

Nicholas Yong
Assistant News Editor
Journalists and media professionals in discussions with the Workers’ Party on Saturday, 6 April 2019. This photo was shared on WP social media accounts. PHOTO: The Workers’ Party Facebook page

Journalists and media professionals in Singapore are generally in favour of the creation of a fact-checking coalition in the wake of impending legislation intended to combat online falsehoods but they are divided on its role and function. 

At a roundtable organised by the Workers’ Party (WP) on Saturday (6 April), participants expressed concerns about the wide-ranging powers that the Protection from Online Falsehoods and Manipulation Act (POFMA) will give ministers to decide what a falsehood is and to compel corrections and takedowns by media outlets.

And while a fact-checking body could serve as a check on the government, it was pointed out that its effectiveness would be limited if information from the government is not free flowing. Furthermore, participants could not agree on whether the body should have an advisory role or be the final arbiter.

“What if the body makes a decision and the government disagrees? Does the government go ahead and label it as false?” asked one participant. 

The roundtable was hosted by WP chief and Member of Parliament for Aljunied Pritam Singh, as well as Non-Constituency MPs Daniel Goh and Leon Perera. Representatives from media outlets such as Yahoo News Singapore, The Straits Times, Today and Chinese-language daily Lianhe Zaobao were present, as well as alternative media outlets such as The Online Citizen and Rice Media. 

The WP was seeking feedback from media professionals on POFMA. The discussion was held in accordance with Chatham House rules, which means that information disclosed during the meeting can be reported, but its sources cannot be identified.

A fact-checking coalition

Among its 22 recommendations to the government, a fact-checking body to debunk falsehoods swiftly and credibly, or to give support to such initiatives, was mooted by a Select Committee on Deliberate Online Falsehoods last September. The Committee included Pritam Singh, as well as Home Affairs and Law Minister K Shanmugam.

But while the recommendations were accepted by authorities, Yahoo News Singapore understands that during recent media briefings conducted only for mainstream media outlets, government officials said there are no plans to set up a fact-checking body. Shanmugam has also said the courts would be the final arbiter of any dispute over falsehoods under the new laws. 

In a statement last Thursday, media conglomerate Singapore Press Holdings (SPH) supported the establishment of a fact-checking coalition. And while ministers will be empowered by POFMA to decide on what is a falsehood, SPH said, “we continue to believe that an independent authority would have provided a neutral avenue for content creators or news organisations to appeal to, short of resorting to a legal challenge”. 

According to the draft Bill, which had its first reading in Parliament last Monday, “a statement is  false if it is false or misleading, whether wholly or in part, and whether on its own or in the context in which it appears”. Ministers are empowered to issue a correction or takedown notice if a false statement of fact is being communicated in Singapore, and if he feels it is in the public interest to do so. 

Public interest is defined by the Bill as, among other things, preventing any influence of the outcome of an election and preventing a “diminution of public confidence” in the government. It is also prohibited for any individual or organisation to disseminate any false statement that is prejudicial to “public health, public safety, public tranquillity or public finances”. 

Those accused of making false statements have the right to appeal against the correction or takedown notice, but only after their appeal to the minister to cancel the order has failed. 

Proposed sanctions include fines of between $30,000 and up to $1 million, and/or jail time of up to 10 years. The penalties could be doubled if the falsehood will or is likely to impact public interest as defined in the law.

Other concerns

Participants at the WP roundtable were also concerned about the “very blurred” definition of falsehoods, as well as the power to compel corrections. Noting that government agencies are in constant dialogue with media outlets over disputed articles, one felt there must be a “properly defined trigger” that is “very clearly articulated in the law” before authorities can invoke the fake news laws to compel a correction. 

Another suggested that there be a periodic accounting, perhaps in Parliament, of all the occasions when the government has compelled corrections and takedowns. 

All agreed that the process needs to be transparent. “Since ministers have the power to label something a falsehood, they should come out and explain why every time they do so. There must be a justification for why the public interest is harmed.”

Related stories

Singapore government should pass laws against fake news: Select Committee

Parliament: Draft bill proposes up to 10 years’ jail for individuals who deliberately spread fake news