While on the surface such codes look reasonable, there are problems – two of which are: the difficulty of enforcement, and the failure of which would or might encourage untoward behaviour; and the different codes which the Internet operates on.
On the first point, a code – being what it is – is not enforceable. It is a nothing but a signage, really. “This is how we should behave.” Nothing more than that. One is free to accept it, or not. And no one will enforce it. Even if one could, it would be undesirable. In short, it may have – to use a phrase by former Foreign Minister George Yeo – a sharp tongue but no teeth.
To have an unenforceable code or set of rules makes a mockery of the exercise, much like section 377A of our penal code – we have it but do not enforce it (at least that’s what the government says). Opponents of the law have ridiculed its presence in our law books. It does not reflect what is real. Similarly, hoping that a code of conduct for the Internet would solve perceived problems is to live in fantasy.
The second point has to do with the “codes” which netizens live by. Namely, this means a wide acceptance of what is “allowed”. Basically, netizens treasure the freedom of the Internet. It is the last frontier for free expression, especially for a state such as Singapore where expression everywhere else – broadcast media, in print, in the arts, and so on - is curtailed according to the state’s dictates.
A code of conduct does not address the heart of the matter.
What, if I am correct in my observation, it hopes to do is to keep a check on netizens so that they fall in line with what is acceptable behaviour. But this shows a lack of understanding of the nature of the Internet. In any case, what netizens agree is acceptable behaviour may not – still – be considered acceptable by the authorities and others.
For example: the Singapore blogosphere is mostly “anti-PAP” or “anti-establishment”. Thus, what is acceptable to bloggers may not be acceptable to the (PAP) government. We would be back to square one, as far as what is acceptable is concerned.
I would like to suggest one alternative to a code of behaviour which I believe will be more effective and which will benefit almost everyone concerned.
The fears, expressed by the government and others, stems from several factors:
1. The nature of discourse online.
2. The lack of more “moderate” and “pro-establishment” voices.
3. The lack of minimum standards and quality in reports and articles by citizen journalists and bloggers.
The nature of discourse online can be irrational and emotionally-charged, as can be seen in recent times. This gives rise to all sorts of accusations and allegations made against those who go against the grain of public opinion. Dr George himself would know this best, having been the target of such behaviour recently.
The onus is and should be on editors/bloggers to decide if content on their site (reports, articles, comments posted) is acceptable – and to accept the responsibility for this. Any aggrieved party has recourse to existing laws, such as defamation and libel laws.
In 2009, former Nominated Member of Parliament, Mr Siew Kum Hong, was accused of “receiving foreign funding from a Swedish politician, who allegedly funds the Singapore Democratic Party (SDP) as well” and that Mr Siew was “involved or associated with the SDP and may be their [sic] representative or ‘mole’ in Parliament.” (Source: here.)
Mr Siew said he considered the allegations “extremely defamatory and criminal in nature” and rejected them. “I feel that this latest attack crosses the line,” he said, “and goes beyond any attacks that I am willing to countenance as being fair game for a public figure.”
Mr Siew said he made a police report and asked the forums which carried those allegations to remove them. He ended his blog post with this:
“I have to date refrained from taking any legal action in response to the lies and falsehoods that have been levelled at me. But this latest attack goes beyond anything that a reasonable person could possibly perceive as being a valid or legitimate exercise of the right to free speech, and I certainly will not tolerate the latest rounds of character assassination from cowards hiding behind the perceived anonymity of the Internet.”
The point here is this: Mr Siew took recourse through making a police report and did not rule out legal proceedings against the perpetrators. In a situation such as this, I agree with his actions.
The second point – there are not enough “moderate” voices – is another concern. The absence of this skews the Internet and discourse. The more vocal ones become the de facto “voice of the people” online. But such a situation has little, if at all, to do with netizens or bloggers. It is not their fault. Those who feel that there are not enough “moderate” voices should step up and join in the conversation online, and to do so without fear.
The third point is what I am most interested in – how do we raise the standards and quality of content generated by bloggers and citizen journalists? This will go to the heart of what those in government and Dr George are concerned about. The nature of discourse on the Net is, I would say, determined by how reports and articles are written and the quality of these.
Being untrained in journalism, law or media, amateur bloggers should not be expected to be of any professional standards. However, this does not mean that they cannot up their game, as it were.
The misquotes, false reports, blatant and unsubstantiated allegations we have seen in recent times stem from this lack of a critical journalistic eye – on the part of editors and authors of blogs and websites.
This is, to me, what is more critical. How do we change this?
There is a need for citizen journalists to be trained in the basics of journalism. But who is to do this? Where should this be done? What resources do we have to do this?
Bloggers and netizens could, of course, come together to conduct regular workshops, with invited specialists, experts in various fields, and perhaps even former or current journalists, sharing their knowledge and best practices.
There was an attempt at this in 2009 with the Bloggers Seminar, jointly-organised by the Institute of Policy Studies (IPS) and The Online Citizen (TOC). It was, however, a one-off, full-day, workshop event.
If we recognise that citizen journalism is here to stay, and I believe it is, then we need to think longer-term and get to the heart of the matter. One suggestion, as I previously made, is to have a centre for civil society. A physical space, granted by the government, for all of civil society to use, at nominal booking fees.
Such a venue or channel will enable not just civil society as a whole but also bloggers and netizens, in particular, to hold regular workshops, discussions and debates about best practices online.
This is not the same as having a code of conduct which, to me, is an attempt at a quick-fix. We can spend precious amount of time to devise and create such a code but it will soon be forgotten after it is released. No one will bother to remember or adhere to the stipulations of such a thing.
So, if the government and others who are concerned about discourse on the Internet are serious about the matter, then they should put their money where their mouths are and get to the root of the perceived “problem”.
Leave the Internet be. What we need is to empower bloggers, netizens, and citizen journalists with the tools of journalism, and more information.
The last thing one should do is to try to curb expression – whether through force or coercion, directly or vicariously – without first recognising and addressing the cause.
Not to do so will find us, in the not too distant future, discussing once again a new code of conduct.