Time to call the Government’s bluff

The Singapore Police Force (SPF) has once again reacted to what it says are ‘unsubstantiated” news stories online.

In its latest riposte to a story on The Online Citizen (TOC) website, the SPF accused the TOC article of making “allegations against the Police” which are “unfounded”.

The article in question had claimed that police officers who were investigating a case of motor vehicle theft at Mayflower Terrace in January had accused a wheelchair-bound man of committing that theft.

But the SPF’s statement, which was posted on its Facebook page on Friday, said the man “was never accused of being involved in any motor vehicle theft, nor was he asked to provide a statement at the police station.”

The SPF urged “the public to refrain from circulating unsubstantiated reports”, and that it would “not hesitate to take action against persons who deliberately make false allegations.”

The SPF’s response to the TOC article comes after another statement it had issued a day earlier on 16 March.

That statement was with regard to Mdm Josephine Savarimuthu’s story. (Please see here.)

Briefly, the SPF disputed what Mdm Gertrude Simon, who is Mdm Savarimuthu’s daughter, had claimed in a Straits Times’ report – that her mother was restrained while in custody, despite both the SPF’s and the SPS’ statement earlier clarifying that Mdm Savarimuthu was only restrained while in the custody of the SPS.

Screenshots from SPF Facebook page

Also in March, the SPF took issue with yet another article.

This time the offending website was All Singapore Stuff (ASS), which had published a story, sent in by a writer, titled “Underaged girl tormented by ex-bf in school, report to police futile.”

The writer claimed that the police had refused to offer assistance when she approached it for help with regard to her supposedly abusive ex-boyfriend.

Again, the SPF responded on its own Facebook page, dismissing the allegations against it, and going further than it perhaps had before.

“The Police have requested All Singapore Stuff to furnish information on the contributor of the article,” the SPF statement said.

TODAY

Shortly after, ASS issued an apology and removed the article. It is unclear if it had provided the police with the “information on the contributor of the article.”

On 15 March, it was the Attorney General’s Chambers (AGC) turn to demand that blogger Han Hui Hui remove several blog posts she had published on her blog. They had to do with how she was allegedly treated while in prison, and how the courts here have supposedly persecuted her for her political beliefs.

These posts, the AGC said, had “scandalised” the courts.

“They are scurrilous, false and made without any rational basis,” the AGC said in its letter to Ms Han. The AGC gave Ms Han a week to meet its demands, failing which it would proceed to take legal action against her.

“We expect them to do so responsibly”

These cases or incidents come at a time when the Government is considering, and in fact will be introducing, new legislations to deal with what it calls “fake news”.

Amendments to the Broadcasting Act and the Films Act are expected sometime this year, as Minister of Communications and Information (MCI), Yaacob Ibrahim, indicated on 6 March in Parliament.

One of the things which the upcoming changes will affect is the licensing rules for online news websites.

In this regard, this was what Dr Yaacob told the House:

“The Internet is vast and open, but if an entity reports news about Singapore regularly to inform Singaporeans on matters of public interest, we expect them to do so responsibly.” [Emphasis added.]

And this “entity” includes foreign sites as well, Dr Yaacob said.

In 2013, when the Government introduced new legislations to monitor online sites, Dr Yaacob told the BBC:

“I think it is important for us to ensure that  they [Singaporeans] read the right thing.”

But what is the “right thing”?

And what does it mean when Dr Yaacob says websites should report “responsibly”?

Sites have tried to be responsible, Gov’t has not

As we shall see, it is doubtful that the Government is, in fact, interested at all whether websites are “responsible”, or report “responsibly”.

Consider this question:

What if a website had done “the right thing” and had tried to report “responsibly”, but is prevented from doing so by the very same government which is calling for websites to do exactly these things?

Now, what are the things a website is expected to do to be “responsible” or to be seen to be so?

Well, one of the most obvious things (and which is pertinent to this discussion) is that websites must check their facts on a story or report as best they can.

And how does a website do that?

By going to the source of the story, or parties relevant to it, and then present both sides of the story so the reader can decide for themselves.

Straits Times

One would expect that this is what the Government is referring to when it calls for websites to be “responsible” – to check their facts with the parties involved.

And one would also expect that if the Government is involved in, or related to or is relevant to a story or a report, or if wants the public to understand an issue better especially in times of crisis, that it would welcome queries and indeed respond to them.

This helps website be “responsible” in their reports, precisely what Dr Yaacob said to the BBC – now that they have both sides of the story, there is no reason for them not to report both sides’ views or opinions on an issue.

This is what engagement is, what democracy is – the sharing of information openly so people can be informed.

But what if one side chooses not to respond to queries, as in fact the Government often does with regard to alternative news websites such as TOC and others?

How does that help the websites be responsible in their reports?

How does that square with the Government’s rhetoric that it wants websites to be responsible, to check their facts?

Examples where Gov’t showed it is disinterested in responsible reporting

Take the above case involving TOC.

TOC had written to the SPF for its reaction or views on the story in January. The SPF did not respond. It chose to ignore TOC which went ahead and published a report on the story.

Now, the SPF reacts and issues a statement on the story, accusing the writer of “false allegations” and taking issue with TOC itself for publishing the article.

SPF Facebook page

This was the same “modus operandi”, if you will, of the AGC as well in another case involving TOC in 2015.

TOC had published an interview with Dr Ting Choon Meng, on his invention of a military ambulatory vehicle. In short, Dr Ting had charged that the Ministry of Defence (Mindef) had infringed his patent rights when it paraded a similar vehicle at a National Day Parade without his permisssion.

Mindef, through the AGC, sent a letter to TOC and Dr Ting, demanding that the article be removed because it contained “falsehoods”.

But TOC had, in fact, emailed Mindef for its side of the story when it first published the interview with Dr Ting.

It was Mindef which chose to ignore the request. It did not even bother to acknowledge TOC’s email.

In the resulting court case, where the AGC filed for protection from alleged harassment by TOC, the Court of Appeal itself dismissed the AGC’s claims to victimhood.

The New Paper

The Court of Appeal noted “the efforts that The Online Citizen took to provide a balanced view of the facts.”

It said:

“As the [High Court] Judge held, such efforts to present the different sides of the story should be encouraged.”

Both the SPF and the AGC, in both the instances cited above, had chosen to ignore TOC’s queries but later cried foul over TOC’s reports.

How does this sort of behaviour – refusing to respond to query and then crying foul – help our online space be responsible?

It is the behaviour of a spoilt brat.

Sure, the SPF or the Government may say that it is not its business to help or assist any website to do anything. Of course! But if that is the line the authorities want to take, then surely it has no business telling others how to do their job!

You cannot act irresponsibly yourself and then pontificate about how others must be responsible!

You cannot preach responsibility and then deliberately behave in a way which does not encourage this, but which in fact discourages it!

Everyone plays a part in making the online space safe, credible and a productive one. This has been what the Government itself has been saying all along.

No response from Gov’t means report should not be published?

But what if the authorities still choose not to respond to queries? Does that mean, as some misguided people are saying, that websites should not publish a story?

Not at all.

In fact, even the Government-controlled mainstream media would disagree with such a view.

In 2014, for example, the Straits Times published a report by one of its most experienced journalists, Ching Cheong, on how North Korean leader, Kim Jong Un, had purportedly killed his own uncle by feeding him to 120 dogs.

The story was picked up by news wires across the globe and spread everywhere.

However, it turned out that the story was fake, and that the ST had relied on another dubious newspaper report of it without apparently ascertaining the validity of the sensational story.

The Guardian

When the criticisms came rolling in, the Straits Times editor in charge of the report, Yap Koon Hong, came up with a rather long explanation which tried to defend the piece.

And Mr Yap, in a response titled “Fact, opinion and media’s fifty shades of truth”, said something which is most pertinent to the discussion we are having here.

It is worth quoting in full the part which is relevant [emphasis added], which is as follows:

“But the truth in media is as much a function of opinion as it is of fact. These two elements meet in the newspaper, sometimes with conflicting consequences, as Mr Ching’s article showed.

“Readers often think that newspapers must publish only the ultimate Tao – unimpeachably verified facts – and if they do not, editors and journalists are being tardy and unprofessional. In fact…, truth is often as nuanced as the currently proverbial fifty shades of grey.

“In practice, getting the facts to tell the truth can be next to impossible anywhere. It virtually is in a closeted state like North Korea.

Also, facts may not necessarily be accepted as the whole truth and nothing but, even if they are certifiable. The reason is that a publication not only reports what happens, it also publishes what it – or any number of people – thinks happened.

[— truncated—]

“It is true that a newspaper’s duty and credibility depend on getting the facts right. It is equally true that the inability to verify the accuracy of a story may still require a newspaper to run it because of the tale’s portent.”

Yap’s response in the Straits Times

Let us keep in mind that this is a supposedly professional editor of a national newspaper, who has had many years of experience in the newsroom.

In brief, this editor of the Straits Times is saying that an unverified story could still be run even if you are unable to “verify the accuracy” of the story because sometimes the story is an important one.

Indeed, Mr Yap is correct in saying so.

And yes too, there have been times when the mainstream media had run stories which it had not yet verified with the authorities, or for which the authorities had chosen not to respond to their queries.

So, what should we make of all this?

Well, the Government is, truth be told, not interested in whether alternative news websites are responsible or which make an effort to be responsible in their reports.

The Government’s behaviour, over the years, bears witness to this.

What the Government is interested in, however, is to discredit the alternative websites. This has been its goal since way back in 2005. It has just taken on different forms in the way this is done.

If the Gov’t was truly interested in encouraging responsibility

For if it is truly interested in websites being responsible, it would not play this childish game of double-speak, of ostensibly urging sites to be “responsible” while at the same time refusing to respond to queries so that these very websites can ascertain the facts and be responsible!

If it were truly genuine in wanting to promote responsible information gathering and dissemination, it could do any one of the following or all of them:

  1. Respond to queries.
  2. Introduce a Freedom of Information Act
  3. Open media conferences to more websites
  4. Make media press releases more easily available online and not only to selected media outlets
  5. Have parliamentary proceedings broadcast “live” online and on television
  6. Not hijack genuine and good legislations intended to protect vulnerable members of the public for its own political agenda and use such laws against critical websites.

But the Government’s intention is not to promote responsible reporting, for it has done none of the above. On the contrary, it has done exactly the opposite.

And so this needlessly antagonistic to-and-fro will continue, until the Government – once again – resort to the law books to curtail alternative views, as it will with the amendments to the Broadcasting Act later this year.

Incidentally, the Ministry of Law had said, after the Government had lost its harassment claim against TOC, that it would not amend the Harassment Act to enable the Government to invoke it.

Now, however, it seems the Government is going to amend another piece of legislation – the Broadcasting Act – to rein in the online media.

This is the sort of wordplay which does not engender trust in this Government.

The rules of the game, as it were, are not honest.

The Government says one thing, but its behaviour says another. It does not enter by the front door like everyone else, but sneaks in through the back, and under the cover of darkness.

What websites can do

Having said all that, what can alternative websites do in such a dishonest arena? It must keep itself honest and not play this dishonest game.

Here are a few things alternative websites can do:

  1. Do not publish articles or stories from anonymous sources, unless absolutely critical (for example, if it is a serious public interest issue). It is about time that Singaporeans stand up for what they want to say. If they are not prepared to put their identity to a story, then don’t publish it.
  2. Verify the story as much as possible. Have at least 2 editors/persons go through the story before publication.
  3. Brush up on your grammar or written English. Some may cast a smirk at this suggestion but we are, in fact, wordsmiths when we write reports. This is, or should be, our very basic skill. Words, and how they are crafted, can get you into trouble, or out of trouble. Editors and owners, especially, need to have this very basic but crucial skill. (Just go ask any lawyers on the importance of using the right words or phrases.)
  4. Apply commonsense. If a story submitted to you reads too sensational, check and check again and again. Go to the source, if possible. If you cannot verify the authenticity of the facts, then you need to be able to craft the piece in such a way as to not assert an unverified claim as fact. Again, word skills come in handy in such instances.
  5. The tone of your article. Even if you use the “right” words or phrases, the tone of your article may betray your hidden (if any) intention of crafting or framing a story in a particular way. So, be honest with your intention. This is more important than you may appreciate.
  6. Practice makes perfect. Continue to write, even on other less sensitive subjects and topics, so that over time, with more practice, you get better at writing.
  7. For editors: if a story is an emotionally charged one, it would be good to not publish such a piece without first taking some time to re-read it perhaps several times. The failure to do this has gotten not a few people into avoidable trouble.

To conclude, I return to my main point: if the Government is serious about wanting websites to be responsible, there are several things it could do, (such as those mentioned above).

Until then, the facts show that the Government is not interested at all about encouraging or wanting sites to be responsible. All it wants, truth be told, is for these bothersome websites to fold or shut up.

Its dishonest behaviour – in not responding to queries and then crying foul later – and its ever-changing rules, bear witness to this.

Wanting websites to be so-called “responsible” is the last thing on the Government’s mind.

That much is clear.

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