Friday, 27 April 2012

Show us you mean business

There's been a lot of talk about the Government's proposal for an online code of conduct, and today the Institute of Public Studies organised a closed-door discussion on the topic. It was conducted under the Chatham House Rule, so I'm not going to go into details on what was discussed.

What I will say, is that the CEO of the Media Development Authority, Mr Aubeck Kam, spoke at the discussion. Given that the attendance included a whole bunch of socio-political bloggers, he predictably heard a lot of very critical and skeptical opposition to the suggestion of a new code of conduct.

I thought Mr Kam handled the criticism pretty well. He came across as being very thoughtful, earnest and sincere.

But none of that changes the reality of what we face today. Nobody in the internet community -- at least, nobody affiliated with or actively supporting the PAP or the Government -- believes that, whatever else the code is genuinely intended to achieve, the Government does not hope to use such a code to control or suppress, or at the least moderate and blunt, the storm of anti-PAP sentiment on the Internet.

Claims about the lack of sheltered online space for moderate views (which is really code for pro-PAP/Government voices, or at least voices that are sympathetic to the PAP and the Government), beg the question as to why they deserve special treatment as compared to others who have dared to stick out their necks to speak their minds.

Yes, I fundamentally believe that it is better to have more voices speaking up than less. But people have to be willing to stand up for their views -- and I have to question the commitment of anyone who thinks that being flamed and criticised is too high a price to pay, and that growing the thick skin that is really just the ante for online participation today is too difficult for them.

Those of us who have stood up and spoken up on views deemed anti-establishment and anti-Government bear our own risks in doing so. Defamation lawsuits, sniping and flaming, cyber-harassment, invasion of privacy, police complaints, possible threats to employment prospects, and yes the Internal Security Act -- these threats and risks all come with the territory.

An online code of conduct will do nothing to protect us from those risks. And yet we continue to do what we do. I cannot speak for others, but I have very limited sympathy for those with such thin skins that they shy away from speaking up just because of the risk that they may be flamed. Compared to what some have experienced and undergone, that almost sounds trivial.

This Government's actions against its critics have laid the foundations for the skepticism greeting this proposal. After all, it had gazetted The Online Citizen as a "political association" in the guise of ensuring that TOC does not receive foreign funding -- thereby also ensuring that, as a practical matter, TOC will almost certainly not receive local funding from the usual donors foundations, and setting a lowly limit of S$5000/year for anonymous donations from local donors. So it is difficult to accept the Government's claims that the code of conduct does not have the collateral objective of silencing or muting critical voices.

If the PAP and the Government are genuine and sincere that they do not seek to restrict content by advocating such an online code of content, then they can take concrete steps to demonstrate its commitment to maintaining free speech online. There are a few easy steps that the PAP and the Government can take, to put their money where their mouths are:

1. lift the gazetting of TOC as a political association.

2. legislate a statutory safe harbour for websites, such that they are not liable for defamatory user comments if they take down those user comments when they receive a third-party complaint -- which is something that the Government-appointed AIMS Committee had recommended back in December 2008.

3. lead by example. The PAP can itself respect diversity of views. It can commit to cease deleting non-profane comments asking hard questions on its pages, and instead have genuine conversations with critics. It can commit to refraining from defamation lawsuits against critics. It can refrain from tarring-and-feathering its online critics.

Somehow, I don't see any of those things happening anytime soon. I would be glad to be proven wrong.

PS. I would accept that there is some merit to the argument that online "witch hunts" are problematic. But the real problem there is invasion of privacy, and not the content as such. The problem arises from the disclosure of names, addresses, photos, occupations, schools, etc., and it is irrelevant whether that disclosure is made online or offline (e.g. by way of flyers distributed and posters displayed near the victim's home) -- the only difference is in scale. While there is good reason to object to such behaviour, the right answer to this is through privacy laws, and not through an online code of conduct.

PPS. One participant made a valid point about how the absence of a self-regulating code of conduct could increase the pressure on the authorities to rely increasingly on the heavy hand of the law on increasingly marginal cases, in the absence of any alternative mechanism. Something for everyone to bear in mind -- not that it ultimately changes my personal view on the matter.


Unknown said...

hi, you seem to misunderstand the Chatham House rule. Under the rule, you can divulge the information discussed, but not identify the speaker, or any participant at the meeting (depending on whether the participant is willing to waive that confidentiality).

i.e. you can identify yourself as being present, which you have done with this post. If Aubeck Kam didn't wish to be identified, you shouldn't have done so. and contrary to what you seem to suggest in your first paragraph, you are at liberty to go into detail WHAT was discussed at the meeting. Just not the WHO.

weeleeum said...

that's not precisely Chatham House Rules either.

Please see :

Q. Can participants in a meeting be named as long as what is said is not attributed?
A. It is important to think about the spirit of the Rule. For example, sometimes speakers need to be named when publicizing the meeting. The Rule is more about the dissemination of the information after the event - nothing should be done to identify, either explicitly or implicitly, who said what.

Unknown said...


erm...that's exactly my point?

under the Chatham House Rule, the naming of participants is upon the consent of the participant.

the example given by Chatham House can be illustrated here. This is a list of events organized by IPS -

in it, we see closed-door discussions (presumably under Chatham House Rule) that are publicized, including by naming the headline speakers. This particular discussion on the internet code of conduct wasn't publicized - for reasons known to the IPS themselves - and certainly no headline speakers are named.

in this case, whether you can name Aubeck Kam as being an attendee to this discussion is dependent on whether or not he wants to be named. Siew Kum Hong said he was present, and that's his entitlement. What he isn't entitled to under Chatham House Rule is to name other attendees without their prior consent.

this is precisely what the point of the Chatham House Rule is - to offer anonymity to speakers so that they can speak their mind, and at the same time, allowing the fruits of that discussion (which probably contains ideas and thoughts that couldn't have emerged if all the speakers are named) to be made public.

Whether or not you think Kam as a figure of public authority should be granted anonymity, if you participate in a Chatham House Rule meeting, you should honour that anonymity granted to attendees (unless the individual is ok with waiving it).

Unknown said...

i think it would have sufficed to say it was attended by bloggers, media professionals and government officials, and that the senior government official present was candid, etc. it would have been acceptable to name his organization (MDA), to give the context. i don't it wasn't necessary to name him.

Siew Kum Hong said...

ok folks.

I made a mistake in my original post in connection with the Chatham House Rule. I have now fixed the mistake. I have also reached out to Mr Kam about this blog posting, and also apologised for my initial mistake.

I learnt quite a bit today. And thanks to everyone for pointing out the mistake. So can we get back to the real discussion, i.e. the code of conduct...

The Pariah said...

Chatham or Ahem ..... The PAP Gahmen will do exactly as what they intended at the outset - they may even already have Plan B ready but disclose this AFTER so-called dialogue to prove that they have listened.

Right after GE 2011, PAP MPs asked that bills tabled should not be "perfect" so that they can show that bills are amended after the debate.

It is not only Wayang (Play performance) nowadays. But Wayang Kulit (Shadow Play performance). PAP "finesse", as usual.

Gary said...

Quiet frankly, I find this fanciful way of boxing up discussion of an issue that is universal and open rather incredulous. What and whose fears are we talking about that views cannot be openly stated and discussed? It appears to me that the people who are not confident that their views or opinions would make sense or acceptable to the majority and popular sentiments want to be protected when it is precisely such views that need to be exposed and aired for what they are. Call a spade a spade. Since when does society owe such people such indulgence? The topic should not be confined to only a few from both sides.

Robin said...

Instead of setting up laws and what not, the government should learn to engage as they promised to during the GE.

The state of transparency and willingness to have open discussions is non-existent, and engagement when decision is made (e.g. Bukit Brown) is futile and misleading.

All these MDA and IPS are a waste of time and money, and nothing good can come from it

Gary said...

It cannot be a mere coincidence that an SPH man -Janadas Devan - was airlifted from his ST job as a senior writer into the top dog's job at IPS when there are so many more eminently qualified people like that Gillian Koh, for example.

It is all planned. I am quite certain the govt cannot stand the forthright, neutral and ethical stance of people like Koh. It prefers those completely compliant with jellied backbone buggers from the SPH. But who in his right mind to expect anything less than this from the dying throes of this sunset administration?

BokChong said...

"But none of that changes the reality of what we face today. Nobody in the internet community -- at least, nobody affiliated with or actively supporting the PAP or the Government -- believes that, whatever else the code is genuinely intended to achieve, the Government does not hope to use such a code to control or suppress, or at the least moderate and blunt, the storm of anti-PAP sentiment on the Internet."

Above is by the way badly written and counter-intuitive. Consider to re-write this paragraph. Convoluted and impossible to comprehend on first read.