Human Rights Watch declines Singapore's invite to 'fake news' hearing

SINGAPORE (Reuters) - Human Rights Watch declined on Friday an invitation from Singapore to give evidence at a public hearing on “fake news”, saying the hearing was not a “true consultation” but a “media event”.

A parliamentary committee has been reviewing possible measures to prevent “deliberate online falsehoods”, mirroring efforts in various countries to tackle false information amid growing questions about the influence of internet companies.

Activists worry that laws aimed at stopping “fake news” could be used to stifle free speech.

The rights group, in a recent report that ruling party politicians in Singapore criticized, urged the government to amend or repeal laws that it said were too broadly worded and used to “arrest, harass, and prosecute critical voices”.

Singapore later invited the group to give evidence at the hearing.

“We have ... reluctantly come to the conclusion that these hearings are not a true consultation on how best to deal with ‘fake news’, but a media event aimed to showcase those who agree with the government’s views and criticize those who do not,” Human Rights Watch said in a statement.

Singapore’s parliament did not immediately respond to a request for comment.

Vikram Nair, a member of the ruling People’s Action Party, said this week Human Rights Watch had used “clearly false” examples to further its agenda and undermine public discourse in its report.

Human Rights Watch said it had tried to contact Singapore authorities before the publication of the report but received no response.

The eight-day hearing - the longest in Singapore’s history - drew to a close on Thursday.

Two witnesses who gave evidence at the hearing filed formal complaints to the committee over the way evidence was presented in official summaries of their hearing, according to copies of the complaints the witnesses sent to Reuters.

“I was horrified to see my views so drastically misrepresented,” Kirsten Han, a freelance journalist and activist, said in her complaint.

Another witness, Terry Xu, an editor of an online blog, asked that the summary be amended “so as to reflect the entirety of what was said during the hearing”.

Representatives of the parliamentary committee did not immediately respond to a request for comment on the complaints.

The committee will prepare a report on possible new legislation in May, after parliament’s mid-term break, its chairman, Charles Chong, told the final session on Thursday.

Reporting by Fathin Ungku; Editing by Robert Birsel