Singapore invites rights group to fake news hearing as dispute grows

SINGAPORE (Reuters) - Singapore on Wednesday invited Human Rights Watch to give evidence at a parliamentary hearing on “fake news” as a dispute grew between the New York-based group and the city state.

A parliamentary committee in Singapore is 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 “fake news” could be used to stifle free speech.

“We can hear you on any date in May, or after May, after Parliament reopens,” the committee said in a press release, addressing Human Rights Watch (HRW).

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

In its report, the rights group called on Singapore to amend or repeal laws that it said were too broadly worded and were used to “arrest, harass, and prosecute critical voices”, including a Sedition Act and Public Order Act.

The group cited several examples including a defamation case against a blogger, a case against an activist opposed to the death penalty and a case against a free-speech campaigner.

“From the examples it relies on, HRW seems to advocate the use of false and fabricated allegations in political discourse,” Nair said in a written argument submitted to the committee.

Nair was among 79 people asked to speak in parliament over the eight days set for the hearing.

The committee said it had earlier invited a HRW official to speak at a hearing in late March, which the group first accepted but later declined.

Human Rights Watch Asia director Brad Adams said it had sought the Singapore government’s view ahead of the publication of its report but had received none.

The group’s earlier offer to send an official to testify before the Singapore committee also went unanswered, he said.

“The purpose of the hearing was not to discuss our findings and recommendations in good faith, or to get our input into dealing with ‘deliberate online falsehoods’ ... but to engage in ridiculous and irrelevant arguments aimed to discredit our report and Human Rights Watch,” he said in a statement.

Last week, representatives of global tech giants including Facebook and Twitter spoke at the hearing to express concern about new laws to tackle falsehoods, saying sufficient rules were already in place.

Singapore ranks 151 out of 180 countries in a World Press Freedom Index issued by Reporters Without Borders, a non-government group that promotes freedom of information.

Neighboring Malaysia is debating legislation aimed at jailing “fake news” offenders for up to 10 years.

Reporting by Fathin Ungku; Editing by Jack Kim, Robert Birsel