Govt helped to debunk haze rumours

UNNECESSARY anxiety and public doubt were created during the recent haze crisis by a minority that spread rumours and false information online, said Minister for Communications and Information Yaacob Ibrahim yesterday.

Dr Yaacob said that the impact of such rumours is "far greater" today, because they are circulated virally online and through text messages, and can reach more people than they could have in the past.

He was responding to questions from Members of Parliament (MPs) about what the Government was doing about false information and hoaxes which emerged during the haze crisis.

He cited several cases of false information, including the circulation of an altered screenshot of the National Environment Agency's (NEA's) Pollutant Standards Index (PSI) update on June 19, which was "mischievous" and "intended to undermine public confidence in the NEA".

Dr Yaacob also gave the example of blogger Ravi Philemon, who alleged on June 22 that an unnamed friend said there were nine million face masks brought into Singapore, but none would be for the public.

"It is easy to cast doubt through innuendo, insinuation and conspiracy theories," Dr Yaacob said.

In response, the Government actively declared these rumours to be false, and compiled them in a section of the haze microsite called Cut Through The Haze, Dr Yaacob said.

In reply to Nominated MP Tan Su Shan's query about whether the Media Literacy Council (MLC) could provide an avenue for recourse for victims of misinformation, Dr Yaacob clarified that the MLC's primary role was "public education".

He added that the building of a safe and responsible online environment can happen only through the shared responsibility between content providers and the larger Internet community.

He said the Government had previously encouraged the formation of an Internet Code of Conduct, but the idea was rejected by prominent members of the online community, such as Mr Philemon.

Dr Yaacob said: "When public anxiety was highest during the days when the haze was at its worst, where were these prominent members of the online community?"

"Were they helping to clarify and reject online rumours, or were they helping to spread them or even create them?"

Yesterday, Dr Yaacob reiterated that new regulations on news websites - implemented by the Media Development Authority (MDA) on June 1 - will not stifle Internet freedom. Instead, he said that it is intended to ensure a certain standard among news providers.

This was in response to an adjournment motion by Non-Constituency MP Lina Chiam, who called for the regulations to be withdrawn.

Drawing reference to the rumours circulated during the haze crisis, Dr Yaacob stressed: "This concerns...the need for accurate and timely information, something all of us expect not only of the Government, but...also of news providers, both offline and online."