Picture: ISTOCK
Picture: ISTOCK

Singapore — Singapore invited Human Rights Watch on Wednesday to give evidence at a parliamentary hearing on fake news as a dispute grew between the group and the city state.

A parliamentary committee in Singapore is reviewing 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.

Vikram Nair, a member of the ruling People’s Action Party, said this week that 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, which is based in New York, 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 relied on, Human Rights Watch "seems to advocate the use of false and fabricated allegations in political discourse," Nair said in a submission to the committee.

Nair was among 79 people who have been asked to speak in parliament over the eight days that have been set down for the hearing. The committee said that it had earlier invited a Human Rights Watch 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.

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 the World Press Freedom Index issued by Reporters Without Borders.

The aim of the nongovernment group is to promote freedom of information.

Neighbouring Malaysia is debating legislation aimed at jailing fake-news offenders for up to 10 years.