(No) Thanks STR. You just justified fake news laws

States Times Review to shut down its Facebook page ‘in 2 weeks’ following ‘libellous’ 1MDB article.

I hope we’ve seen and heard the last of Mr Alex Tan, the founder of the now-defunct (?) States Times Review and a former collaborator of the definitely-defunct TheRealSingapore.

I have always thought that the right way to deal with such fringe sites is to ignore them. Their claims of real news and independent commentary would make any journalism student blush. Not that they care very much about the ethics of the profession anyway.

Which was why I was surprised when TODAY decided to take Mr Tan’s announcement of a website’s shutdown a few weeks ago so seriously as to have an interview with the man. Reading the report, Mr Tan, now resident in Australia after the TRS saga in court in 2015, was a mass of contradictions.

He said he was worried that the proposed fake news laws were targeted at him. (He’s right to be worried. In 2017, the site was named as one of two sites which peddled fake news. The second one is All Singapore Stuff, which is now infamous for its doctored picture of a collapsed rooftop in Punggol.) He said he would turn to blogging, with content unchanged – as if the different online mode would make a difference.

Then he said he was not worried and that he would take everything the G could hurl at him.

In any case, he continued publishing.

Now, I have to read about him again in the traditional media, thanks to a Malaysian online portal which seemed to have taken his meandering conspiracy theories about Singapore’s involvement in the 1MDB saga seriously. Or, at least, felt that his accusations were in line with the sort of “news’’ it publishes.

When I was sent a WhatsApp message on the article linking Prime Minister Lee Hsien Loong with the 1MDB scandal in a screaming headline, I wanted to ignore it. But fake news is sensational, so I read it. I gulped at the article’s gumption, which contended that the price of water sold to Singapore and the High Speed Railway negotiations were some kind of quid pro quo for covering up the money trail from 1MDB.

The WhatsApp sender said that it was “probably fake news’’ , which made me wonder why he shared it with me in the first place. I guess it’s because not many people know of the Malaysian online portal, The Coverage. At first, given the look of the site and the colours, I thought it was linked to The Star. Then there was the mention of the whistle-blowing Sarawak Report in the article, which seemed to lend credibility to the allegations. There was even “a source close with (sic) the Prime Minister’’ if I recall correctly. (The site can’t be accessed anymore and I am digging into my memory bank).

I don’t, however, recall that it attributed its content to STR, which would have made me upset about wasting a few minutes of my life reading it.

Then the G started weighing in, first with the Singapore High Commission in Malaysia putting out a press statement denouncing the report in The Coverage. It said that the basis of the article was STR. This was followed by a flurry of pronouncements aimed at STR. It was almost as if someone thought: Ahah! Here’s our chance!

Even so, I found news that the Monetary Authority of Singapore had filed a report against STR for alleged criminal defamation surprising. I can’t find a past instance when a public agency has alleged libel, although I can understand why the central bank is so unhappy about having its integrity “impugned’’. I recall how in 2013, the Council of Private Education tried to sue Ms Han Hui Hui, a move which raised questions about whether a G agency could take such action against a private individual. In any case, the case was dropped. Then there was the Defence ministry’s 2017 attempt to use the Protection from Harassment Act on The Online Citizen. That failed because the courts said the law was meant for individuals. (I am so grateful that the Administration of Justice Act with its contempt of court rules only applies to the judiciary – and no one else.)

What wouldn’t have surprised me would be news that Mr Lee had decided to sue, since he was so clearly being targeted in the article, much like he did for blogger Roy Ngerng in 2015.

Law and Home Affairs Minister K Shanmugam has weighed in too, giving a political dimension to the allegations, which had been given a “nasty and malicious twist”.

“It brings in 1MDB, it brings in (former) prime minister Najib, and says that our PM and Singapore Government were corrupt and complicit in the money laundering on 1MDB, and that that is why Singapore got favourable deals and Malaysia was soft on water price (and) gave us a good deal on HSR (High-Speed Rail). Absurd allegations,” he told reporters.

He also pointed out that the China Press in Malaysia had run the story too. This meant that the story was making it into the mainstream of Malaysia as the China Press is said to be the second largest Chinese-language newspaper over there.

“The natural question is, why did they publish these falsehoods – probably knowing that there is no basis … It is obvious also to anyone who publishes them that the allegations … will try to damage the prime minister and seek to damage Singapore,” he said. He described the actions as “very curious’’.

It would appear that this STR saga is checking off all the boxes on the difficulty of nipping fake news in the bud.

The Infocomm Media Development Authority threw the Internet Code of Practice at STR. This says that an Internet Content Provider shall “deny access to material considered by the Authority to be prohibited material if directed to do so by the Authority’’. STR refused to do so, so the Internet Service Providers (also covered by the Code) stepped in to deny access to the site.

Prohibited material, by the way, covers “material that is objectionable on the grounds of public interest, public morality, public order, public security, national harmony, or is otherwise prohibited by applicable Singapore laws’’.

Then a request to Facebook to do the same was turned down.

Right on cue, Mr Shanmugam said FB’s response showed that legislation is needed. “FB cannot be relied upon to filter falsehoods or protect Singapore from a false information campaign.’’ It seems that the Select Committee on Deliberate Online Falsehoods have a firm case when it recommended that there be legally valid and binding orders to compel technology companies because a “request by the Government for them to do so may not be enough’’.

I had a look at FB’s community standards on False News.

It says this: “Reducing the spread of false news on Facebook is a responsibility that we take seriously. We also recognise that this is a challenging and sensitive issue. We want to help people stay informed without stifling productive public discourse. There is also a fine line between false news and satire or opinion. For these reasons, we don’t remove false news from Facebook but instead, significantly reduce its distribution by showing it lower in the News Feed.”

Mr Tan is still venting on his STR FaceBook page. He said that he would shut it down in two weeks and left a little tit-bit for his fans. He will be passing on the mantle to someone else based abroad, who might call the site the Singapore Herald. Now, that is a name that brings memories.

I said on my own FB wall a few days ago that I wish Mr Tan and STR would simply disappear. I can just see how the G will turn the current fuss into a case study on the lack of legal teeth to deal with recalcitrant peddlers of fake news. You know what? I would rather navigate OB markers than have to run up against the law.

No thanks to Mr Tan.