Laws against hate speech can 'backfire', must be balanced with non-legal avenues: Cherian George

Hong Kong-based Singaporean academic Cherian George (right) addressing reporters on Tuesday (27 March) at the Parliament House. (PHOTO: Nicholas Yong/Yahoo News Singapore)
Hong Kong-based Singaporean academic Cherian George (right) addressing reporters on Tuesday (27 March) at the Parliament House. (PHOTO: Nicholas Yong/Yahoo News Singapore)

While legislative changes can play a role in combating disinformation and hate propaganda, any changes in the law must be “minimally invasive” and balanced out with non-legal avenues for tackling the same issues, said Singaporean academic Cherian George.

Speaking during the public hearings for the Select Committee on Deliberate Online Falsehoods on Tuesday (27 March), George noted, “We often think that if we can throw the book at offenders, then that is the end of the story, but usually it is not… it is important to think two, three steps ahead.”

Citing the potential for laws to backfire by playing into the hands of “hate merchants”, George quoted a lawyer who had told him, “When drafting law, never think about how you would use it. Think of how it would be used by your worst enemy.”

As an example, the professor of media studies in the journalism department of Hong Kong Baptist University pointed to anti-blasphemy laws in countries such as Indonesia that had been used by intolerant groups to further their aims.

“The vilification and prosecution of former Jakarta governor ‘Ahok’ Basuki Purnama for blasphemy was a classic case,” said George, who added that the “deliberate taking of offence” is a means for hate groups to “weaponise” such sentiments and put pressure on governments.

In this regard, George urged the repeal of Singapore’s insult laws, specifically Section 298 of the Penal Code which “invites people to demand state intervention when their subjective racial and religious feelings are hurt”.

“We are an anomaly in criminalising the wounding of racial and religious feelings with no ill effects… if Singapore has been spared from the worst side-effects of such laws, it is only because race and religion are not as politicised here as elsewhere,” he not

The need for civic education

In his presentation to the Select Committee, George also advocated solutions such as working with Internet intermediaries like Twitter and Facebook to combat disinformation, the use of fact-checking non-governmental organisations and the greater civic education.

He noted that in Singapore – and even in established democracies – the level of understanding of democracy is “extremely low”, with a tendency to think that it is just a “numbers game”.

“So we do certainly need a much greater emphasis in our civic education and elsewhere about the need for equal rights, religious freedom, religious equality, anti-discrimination; and these must be regarded as principles that cannot be compromised,” said George.

“Practically all this hate propaganda takes the form of telling some group that they should disregard the rights of another group,” he added.

“But if the vast majority of your citizens understands equal rights and anti-discrimination, that disinformation will not have power. They will immediately see through it… as nothing more than a power grab.”

Speaking to reporters after his presentation, George was asked about concerns that any new laws to combat fake news might be used as a blunt instrument that curtails freedom of expression.

“Although the Select Committee started out with very widely defined terms of reference, it has not hidden the fact that it’s leaning towards legislation of some kind,” he replied.

George noted that many who testified at the Select Committee sessions had cautioned that any laws implemented must not be “over-broad” and should be mindful of possible unintended consequences, while also being open to the “many other things that need to be done in addition to legislation”.

“So one hopes that the government, in drafting the legislation, will bring on board all these concerns and reservations,” he said.

“The ministers on the Select Committee have repeatedly given the assurance that they take the non-legal suite of responses very seriously, so we should hold them to that,” George added.

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