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Sweeping ‘fake news’ bill a risk for academic freedom

Apr 15, 2019 by

Academics from Singapore and around the world have expressed concern over Singapore’s new bill against internet ‘fake news’, which they say could have unintended consequences for academic freedom and research in the country and elsewhere, and could also set an international precedent that might “spur emulation by other countries with weaker institutions”.

Such a precedent could lead to “even wider restraints on global scholarly research and knowledge advancement and its public dissemination”, according to a letter from academics to Singapore’s Education Minister Ong Ye Kung, sent on 11 April and signed by dozens of scholars involved in research on Singapore and Asia.

Singapore’s proposed Protection from Online Falsehoods and Manipulation Act 2019, or POFMA, was tabled in the Singaporean parliament on 1 April and is currently being scrutinised by legislators and concerned citizens ahead of the bill’s second parliamentary reading.

The draft bill proposes up to 10 years in jail for individuals and large fines for firms that spread falsehoods online with “malicious intent” to harm public interest. It is seen as one of the toughest proposed laws against fake news by any country.

But critics point out that the bill gives government ministers the power to order the correction or removal of online content that is false. For action to be triggered under the proposed law, two criteria must be met: a false ‘statement of fact’ is put up online; and it must also be in the public interest for the government to take action.

According to the draft, opinions, criticisms, satire or parody are not covered by the bill, with government officials insisting that people will not fall afoul of the proposed law if they criticise the government without making false claims.

Academics’ concerns

However in the 11 April letter to Singapore’s education minister, made public last Saturday, the group of academics with “expertise, experience or interest in Singapore and Asia generally” expressed concern that the proposed legislation “will have unintended detrimental consequences for scholars and research in Singapore, compromising Singapore’s notable efforts to develop itself into an internationally recognised hub for excellence in higher education”.

“The legislation may also set negative precedents, with knock-on effects on the global academy,” they said.

“Wide dissemination of ongoing research – which may be considered ‘facts in dispute’ – is a global public good facilitated by the borderless internet,” the letter said, concerned that POFMA’s wide reach could affect research conducted outside Singapore and that its broad definition of Singapore’s “public interest” covers matters deemed related to “Singapore’s friendly relations with other countries”.

Acting in the public interest is defined broadly as doing something that: protects Singapore’s security, foreign relations, health, finances and safety; prevents influence of elections; averts social tensions; and stops confidence in the government from being eroded.

Severe penalties of large fines and long prison terms for deemed violations “will discourage this for an indeterminately wide range of subjects and individuals,” the academics said.

“POFMA is likely to make many academics hesitant to conduct or supervise research that might unknowingly fall afoul of POFMA, or refer colleagues or students to faculty positions in Singapore’s respected universities,” the letter to Ong said, adding that the proposed bill “discourages scholars from marshalling their expertise in precisely the areas where it is most needed”.

A copy of the letter appears on the Online Citizen website along with a list of the letter’s 83 signatories.

Government response

In a statement published by Singapore’s The Straits Times newspaper on 13 April, in response to the academics’ letter – which at the time had not been made public – the Ministry of Education said: “The bill covers verifiably false statements of fact which affect public interest. The bill does not restrict opinion and will not affect academic research work. This is true regardless of what view the work presents.”

It added that the ministry had “extended an invitation to the autonomous [public] universities to hold discussion sessions for their academics to clarify any concerns they may have”, and looked forward to meaningful discussions on the bill.

In their 13 April statement the academics said: “We note its [the ministry’s] assurances that the proposed law will not affect academic work. But we cannot accept this as a categorical guarantee until it is reflected in the language of the bill.”

Singaporean economist Linda Lim, a professor at the University of Michigan in the United States and a signatory to the letter, told University World News that academics had already asked the government to put protections for academic freedom in the law “but they have not done that”.

“The whole thing is very vague. The public interest is very broadly defined and it also applies to people publishing outside Singapore and putting it online,” Lim added. “If it has relevance to Singapore that might damage Singapore’s public interest, it might not even be about Singapore – so it’s the broadest definition.”

Implications for journals

According to Lim, this has implications for academic journals publishing online and this could make some academic publishers more reluctant to publish from Singapore and on Singapore.

“It’s not just a problem for academics but also for any platform that hosts their work,” Lim said. “It could be just one sentence in a book or an entire article in an academic journal that they object to, and the entire thing would have to be taken down.”

“The minister can force you to take down stuff and force you to publish a correction. But this is difficult for an academic – we don’t publish without going through peer review. The only recourse might be to go through the courts, which is very expensive and individual academics and small academic journals could not afford to do that,” she pointed out.

“Meanwhile during the time it is under judicial review, you have to comply – so it’s as if you are guilty until proven innocent – so you have to take down the post if that is what they require. You have to publish a correction.”

One of the signatories to the letter, Teo You Yenn, associate professor and head of sociology at Nanyang Technological University in Singapore, said in a commentary: “Younger scholars – students or untenured faculty – are particularly vulnerable to accusations that their claims in ongoing work and developing ideas are ‘not factual’. Worry over this will chill critical thinking well before individuals put ink to paper.”

The campaign had not initially been public, according to the academics. It only came into the public domain when the Ministry of Education referred to the academics’ letter – which had also been copied to the presidents of Singapore’s main public universities – in order to rebut some of the arguments.

Rather than launch an international campaign, said Lim: “We wanted to inform the ministerial and university deliberations on this before it comes up in parliament.”

The initial letter to the minister included signatories who were more senior and well-known academics. “Most of the signatories are not based in Singapore. Several Singapore-based academics privately expressed agreement with our letter but declined to sign for fear of compromising their career prospects,” the academics’ 13 April statement said. Lim said it had since been broadened to include others including doctoral students.

“The government’s response in the last few days has been ‘don’t worry, just trust us’. But once it’s in law, even if we trust this government – which is an issue because it ranks below 150 globally in press freedom – the problem would be what if there is another government. The reason people got upset is that it is incredibly subjective and at the discretion of elected ministers who will not be domain specialists.”

In their letter, the academics wrote: “We are concerned about Singapore’s proposed legislation certainly not because we are oblivious to the seriousness of the global assault on reason. On the contrary, academics are at the frontlines of this battle. But no country’s response should undermine the very capacities it requires to deal with this crisis.”

The letter’s signatories include current and four past presidents of the Association for Asian Studies, the world’s largest and premier scholarly association for academics who study Asia, and a former president of the International Communication Association. Source: Sweeping ‘fake news’ bill a risk for academic freedom

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