NGO Human Rights Watch accused of spreading falsehoods to change S’pore, being non-transparent

It has not accepted offer to give evidence at Select Committee.

By Belmont Lay | March 24, 2018

Attention has suddenly turned to foreign non-governmental organisation, Human Rights Watch (HRW).

This was after it has not taken up the offer of giving oral evidence to the Select Committee on Deliberate Online Falsehoods, despite being repeatedly accused of suppressing the truth and invited to show up and defend itself.

NGO spread falsehoods in report

Focus turned to HRW on March 23, after the committee heard serious criticisms made against it by PAP Policy Forum (PPF) during the public hearing.

PPF is an arm of the People’s Action Party. It engages government leaders on policy issues. It was represented by Vikram Nair, Benjamin Tay, Jude Tan, and Sujatha Selvakumar at the hearing.

Prior to the hearing, PPF had submitted written representation that singled out HRW’s report, “Kill the Chicken to Scare the Monkeys” – Suppression of Free Expression and Assembly in Singapore, criticising it for perpetuating falsehoods without basis and under the guise of objectivity.

What HRW wrote

PPF said the HRW report, released last December, is “an example of how false and misleading impressions can be created by a selective presentation of facts, designed to promote an underlying agenda”.

PPF’s characterisation of the HRW report is one that suppresses the truth.

For example, the HRW report cited the imprisonment of the then 17-year-old Amos Yee, but glossed over the actual hate speech that the teenager was charged for, focusing instead on his “irrelevant” criticisms of former Prime Minister Lee Kuan Yew.

The report also mentioned how socio-political website The Real Singapore (TRS) was charged with sedition, but stated that “none of the posts for which they were prosecuted encouraged any sort of public disorder, much less incited violence or overt discrimination against any particular religion or ethnic group”.

The PPF said the HRW report failed to mention that the website’s founders had fabricated “sensational falsehoods” against foreigners to generate advertising revenue.

“The TRS case is a classic example of deliberate online falsehoods, which can seriously undermine societal trust, social peace,” PPF wrote.

“Does HRW seek to perpetuate such deliberate online falsehoods by using them as reference points?”

When asked to elaborate on the PPF report, Nair said during the hearing:

“So, basically I think, the examples this (HRW) report cited certainly was to legitimise the examples that were clearly false.

The examples included Roy Ngerng case, that the Prime Minister misappropriated funds; Alan Shadrake’s allegations that the courts and prosecutors conspired to hang innocent defendants; and the attacks on foreigners with fabricated facts which TRS (The Real Singapore) perpetuated.

And HRW report seems to suggest all these was okay, that these people should not have been prosecuted and this was all legitimate part of discourse.

We, of course, are of the view that false news undermines public discourse.”

Non-transparent with finances

Nair also highlighted in his oral statement that HRW reveals itself to be non-transparent, especially when its interview and funding sources are srcutinised.

“Human Rights Watch has been an NGO that has been around a very long time. But of course, if you look closer at it, you realise you don’t really know where it is getting its money from, you don’t really know how it monetises, how it hires people, who are the ones writing the individual articles. And what was most damning I think, is its long-time founder, Robert Bernstein, also joined its critics around 2009, in particular saying its coverage of the Middle East was extremely biased. In that particular case, against Israel.

And to me looking at this report, it seems to be very much in line with that it presents a one-sided story. You interview 34 people, you don’t put any evidence on the other side, and based on this interview you have an article that reads superficially, it reads nicely, but of course, what it leaves out is vital.

In that sense, it is a report that lacks objectivity, its funding sources are obscure, and its fundamental thrust — this is what we had the most discomfort with, is that — falsehoods are alright. That all these people engaging in deliberate falsehoods were right to do it and the government was somehow wrong and the authorities were wrong and the courts were wrong to come down on it.”

HRW has not accepted offer to attend hearing

In light of these serious criticisms, it has been revealed that the committee had unanimously decided to invite HRW to give oral evidence before any was heard against it.

An invitation was first issued to HRW on March 5 for its representative to appear in person for the public hearings happening over eight separate dates in March 2018.

So far, HRW has not accepted the offer, despite initially agreeing to show up and the committee extending an offer to cover the expenses of the trip here.

Chronology of extending invitation to HRW

March 5

An invitation was sent to Shayna Bauchner, the coordinator of HRW’s Asia Division.

The invitation asked if HRW was willing to appear before the Select Committee to give oral evidence.

Eight hearing dates had been set aside by the Select Committee (March 14, 15, 16, 22, 23, 27, 28 and 29) and if HRW’s representative would be available.

March 8

HRW replied, indicating that it was willing to send a representative to be present at the public hearing on March 23.

The Parliament Secretariat asked if HRW was able to appear at the public hearing on March 27 instead.

March 10

HRW replied that its representative would only be available to give evidence at a session on March 23, and asked if that remained an option.

March 13

The Parliament Secretariat confirmed that March 23 was available. HRW was also informed that its representative should be able to deal with questions that might arise, including HRW’s report “Kill the Chicken to Scare the Monkeys” – Suppression of Free Expression and Assembly in Singapore, which covered some issues relating to freedom of expression.

March 14

HRW replied that “since our last communication the staff member best able to address these issues has made other travel plans that cannot be changed”.

HRW offered to submit written evidence, or to meet with Government officials in Singapore or London.

The Parliament Secretariat replied to reiterate the offer of appearing on any of the eight hearing dates.

March 15

HRW substantially repeated its email of March 14, indicating its unavailability.

The Parliament Secretariat replied, informing HRW that it can send one of its officers, on any day between March 15 and 29, at any time.

HRW was also told that if it could not send one of its officers, then video-conferencing can be arranged at any time between March 15 and 29, so that its officers will not have to travel.

It was also pointed out to HRW that the Select Committee had received a submission which was highly critical of the HRW report and considered the report to be full of falsehoods.

March 16

The Parliament Secretariat sent another email, adding that funding was available should HRW decide to send a representative to Singapore.

March 19

HRW replied that it was unable to participate and did not take up the offer of video-conferencing.

The invitation to HRW still stands. If it decides that it is willing to give oral evidence to defend its report, whether in person or by video-conferencing, it is welcome to write to the committee.

Ministry of Law “disappointed”

Weighing in on HRW’s absence, Singapore’s Ministry of Law issued a statement saying it is disappointed.

“The Ministry of Law notes that serious allegations have been made to the Select Committee, against HRW and its work,” it said in a statement. “Appearing before the Select Committee would give HRW the chance to vindicate itself and set out its views.”

The ministry suggested that HRW had chosen not to come to Singapore to publicly defend its views because it knows that its report would not withstand scrutiny.

“HRW, by its conduct, has shown that it cannot be taken seriously as a commentator or interlocutor on issues relating to Singapore,” the ministry said.

About Belmont Lay

Belmont can pronounce "tchotchke".

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