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No access to information does not give websites licence to peddle falsehoods: Edwin Tong

SINGAPORE — Responding to assertions that alternative news sites should be given similar access as mainstream media to uphold the same professional journalistic standards, Senior Minister of State for Law Edwin Tong said that for all websites, the lack of access does not give them the licence or “propensity to put out information that is false”.

No access to information does not give websites licence to peddle falsehoods: Edwin Tong

In an interview with TODAY, Senior Minister of State for Law Edwin Tong noted that writing a story without complete information is “not the same thing” as publishing a story containing false information. Likewise, having no or little access does not mean there is a risk of peddling falsehoods.

SINGAPORE — Responding to assertions that alternative news sites should be given similar access as mainstream media to uphold the same professional journalistic standards, Senior Minister of State for Law Edwin Tong said that for all websites, the lack of access does not give them the licence or “propensity to put out information that is false”.

There is a need to be clear on what a falsehood is, he said, and that having access is a “different question” altogether from falsehood.

In an interview with TODAY, Mr Tong noted that writing a story without complete information is “not the same thing” as publishing a story containing false information. Likewise, having no or little access does not mean there is a risk of peddling falsehoods.

If alternative news sites do not have the complete picture, the onus is then on them to be more careful, added Mr Tong.

“Just because I am not privy to a press conference or a particular inside track, doesn’t mean I have the licence or indeed the propensity to put out information that is false,” he said.

“I simply have to write the story with whatever information I have which I know to be true, or I can believe to be true.”

Raising the quality of journalism in mainstream and alternative media was among the 22 recommendations put out last month by the 10-member Select Committee on Deliberate Online Falsehoods, of which Mr Tong was part of.

The committee proposed that alternative news sites hold themselves to the same professional journalistic standards as the mainstream media to ensure “fairness, accuracy and integrity in reporting”.

However, critics argued that this requires giving these sites the same access as mainstream media, which means allowing them to attend Government press conferences and other events in order to get a fuller picture.

Former newspaper editor PN Balji wrote in his commentary on Yahoo Singapore that “discrimination” will only make the reports “half-baked and further alienate certain sections of the media”.

Socio political news site The Online Citizen said in a Facebook post that the Government’s “bias” towards alternative news sites impairs the site’s ability “to provide up-to-date and unfiltered information”, citing how agencies do not respond to its queries.

To raise journalism standards, Mr Tong said the committee had also suggested that media organisations and industry partners set up a fact-checking coalition to swiftly debunk fake news.

This fact-checking body should be made available and accessible to all, he said.

He added: “So, that helps to level the playing field. That helps to give them access as much as possible.”

FALSEHOOD: ‘FACT THAT IS FALSE’

Responding to the committee’s findings, critics also pointed to the lack of clarity on the definition of deliberate online falsehoods. Law and Home Affairs Minister K Shanmugam, who also sits on the committee, previously said that falsehoods are capable of a definition, and have been defined in legislation.

When pressed on this, Mr Tong added that the definition of falsehoods has been set out in laws relating to defamation and civil frauds. In the book, The Law of Contract in Singapore, edited by current Supreme Court Judge of Appeal Andrew Phang, he stated that a statement “is false when the facts as asserted do not correspond with the facts as they exist”.

Mr Tong said: “Speaking as a (former) lawyer, it’s been something that the courts have been able to define for many years, in many kinds of cases. So, there is no difficulty (on) the legal definition of falsehoods.”

However, he acknowledged that there might still be doubts. A passing comment, an opinion or a theory that might contain the wrong facts do no constitute as a “proliferation of online falsehood”, said Mr Tong.

He added: “Whether we want to be prescriptive and say, this is what a falsehood means or looks like, I think that would not be a good idea. Because you want to have a clear line.

“It is a fact that is false, not an opinion, not a theory, not a comment.”

FREEDOM OF SPEECH

As the committee began conducting its hearings to solicit feedback on the subject of fake news earlier this year, critics said that potential legislation to address the scourge could curtail freedom of speech instead.

But Mr Tong said freedom of speech does not give an individual the licence to put out falsehoods, and restraint is needed.

Prior to the emergence of online falsehoods, Mr Tong pointed out that there were already legal provisions to address defamation and sedition.

“We as a society have certain parameters,” added Mr Tong.

“Just because you have a first world society or a mature society, doesn’t mean you can stand on a soapbox and start saying anything you want, including falsehoods.”

Similarly, spreading falsehoods online where individuals can remain anonymous should not be tolerated, he added.

Asked how he would convince skeptics claiming that the committee’s work is an exercise by and for the Government, Mr Tong replied that falsehoods do not have a place in Singapore, “whether it’s from the Government, aimed at the Government, or by the person individually”.

He added: “That influences opinion in a wrong way. That creates an environment where people make decisions wrongly.

“Don’t think that because we are putting out legislation or putting out a series of measures, it is aimed at trying to use it as a tool for the Government. That’s not the intention.”

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