Will fake news law be an overkill?

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By P.N Balji

The speedy and sure-footed way in which the government branded a Reuters headline speaks volumes about how widely the proposed legislation on fake news will be interpreted.  Hours after the news agency headlined a report on Minister in the PMO Chan Chung Sing telling foreign correspondents that he was ready to be the next PM if he was asked to, the government in a late-night statement said: “It is irresponsible of a wire agency like Reuters to fabricate quotes like this.”

What was Reuters’ so-called sin? Its headline did not capture the Minister’s words accurately. This is what the Minister actually said: “All of us have to be prepared to do the job when called upon.”  Instead of we, the Reuters headline had the word I. The rest of the story was accurate. Yes, Reuters was wrong in making it look as though Chan wanted the job. Although the news agency was defended in a couple of Facebook posts as excusable because of the click-bait culture online, the point remains that the headline did mislead readers. In fact, in a WhatsApp chat group a friend noted: The succession plan has begun.

But does it mean that the headline was it fabricated? In my book, fake news is something that goes out to create confusion, fear and even upheaval. Donald Trump has used that phrase repeatedly to attack media that makes him angry. When a BBC journalist stood up at a press conference to ask a question, Trumped jumped in and said: Here is another beauty.  The reporter was equally quick with his response: Impartial, free and fair. News that is further from the truth is not something new; it has existed since time immemorial. Errors, sensationalism, untruths, partiality… these can be found in many media reports around the world. The difference today is that technology allows information to be spread at the wink of an eye. But to band them all in a sound bite term called fake news is not the way forward.
The Media Literary Council defines fake news as “different types of misinformation, often circulated as deceptive headlines, and other sources of information that cast doubt around an issue.”

What is missing in this description is whether such news has been propagated to deliberately cause serious harm to the reputation of a person, company or country. There are enough laws to deal with such wanton twisting of facts. There are libel laws, the Telecommunications Act and the Harassment Act to deal with fake news. There are also other laws to deal with spreading falsehoods about religion, race and national security.

The government has other powers like being able to close down websites who spread fake news. Real Singapore faced the wrath of the law when it published reports stoking anger and hostility between Singaporeans and foreigners. It was closed down and its editors jailed.  So as government grapples with a proposed law, here are some questions to consider:

1. Is the intention malicious and/or mischievous?
2. What about propaganda that is put out by organizations and officialdom?
3. How do you draw the line between a news item that is the result of a genuine mistake and an honest error?
4. To what extent should we leave the reading public to expose fake news?

The best defence against fake news is still a strong, trusted and credible pres s -and of course, an informed public that will expose and block out websites and other press outlets whose ethical standards are below the norm.

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