Reporteurs Sans Frontiers 2002 Annual Report: Singapore

Surface area : 618 sq. km.
Population : 4,018,000
Languages : English, Chinese, Malay, Tamil
Type of State : unitary republic
Head of State : S. R. Nathan
Head of government : Goh Chok Tong

The victory of the People’s Action Party, in power for the past thirty-six years, in the November 2001 legislative elections, was expected. The opposition was only present in twenty-nine districts, and won only two of eighty-four seats. The regime can count on unwavering support from both public and private media.

The two large press groups, Singapore Press Holding and Mediacorp, are controlled by people close to the party in power. While coverage of international politics is more open than in many other Asian countries, censorship and self-censorship affect the way the country’s news is presented to its people.

Opponents and journalists who are critical of those in power face two threats : the law on internal security, which allows police to hold anyone threatening “state security”, and lawsuits filed for slander asking for huge amounts of damages. These two swords of Damocles have led to “very strong self-censorship”, according to Amnesty International, and citizens of Singapore are afraid to participate in democratic debate. During the 1997 elections, leaders of the party in power won more than two million dollars in a lawsuit against an opposition candidate.

Opponents of the party in power use the Internet and radio to get around censorship. All the opposition parties have Web sites, but, before the November elections, the government passed a law prohibiting the publishing of political content on Singaporean sites. The Singapore Independent News Service radio station was launched in August, and broadcasts news bulletins from Indonesia to Singapore.

On 17 February 2001, Lee Yock Suan, Minister of Information and the Arts, announced the introduction of a new law (an amendment to article 42 of the 1994 Audiovisual Authority Law) allowing authorities to limit the distribution of foreign audiovisual media accused of “interfering with internal policy”. Lee Yock Suan specified that “the goal is not to censor but to exercise control.” On 19 April, Parliament passed the government’s bill. Lee Yock Suan said, before the National Assembly, that this new law provided for financial sanctions – fines of more than fifty-five thousand euros – for foreign media who violated it, and allowed the government to suspend them for short periods. These measures already existed for the written press (Newspaper and Printing Presses Act). When answering questions from Members of Parliament, Lee Yock Suan said, “Our policy belongs to us and us alone, foreigners have no business coming here and telling us what is good for Singapore.” The government criticised foreign media for regularly publishing articles on the regime’s authoritarianism.

On 28 February, authorities banned a demonstration in favour of press freedom organised by a human rights association. Demonstrators wanted to protest against the attitude of the Radio Corporation of Singapore which had censored a story about a rally held by human rights activists. The journalist who wrote the story about this event was fired.

On 1 April, the government declared that two organisations defending freedom of expression, Open Singapore Centre and Think Centre, were “political organisations”. Because of this, they could no longer receive foreign funding.

On 10 June, Othman Haron Eusofe, Minister of Employment, criticised the media’s point of view on Islam. He criticised them for being “sensationalist” and “perpetuating a negative image” of Islam. He claimed that this “hindered social cohesion”.

On 13 September, Media Watch Community, an independent organisation that monitors media, stopped its activities after failing to collect enough money to fund itself. Created by retired journalists, university professors and opposition leaders, Media Watch Community hoped to encourage journalistic objectivity, and had planned to launch a Web site and publish an annual report on the state of media. Public and private institutions refused to fund the organisation, under the pretext that their rules prevented them from having any sort of “political leaning”. Tan Chong Kee, one of the leaders of the organisation, regretted that this type of initiative was inevitably seen as political.

Reporteurs Sans Frontiers defends imprisoned journalists and press freedom throughout the world, as well as the right to inform the public and to be informed, in accordance with Article 19 of the Universal Declaration of Human Rights. Reporters Without Borders has nine national sections (in Austria, Belgium, France, Germany, Italy, Spain, Sweden, Switzerland, and the United Kingdom), representatives in Abidjan, Bangkok, Buenos Aires, Istanbul, Montreal, Moscow, Nairobi, New York, Tokyo and Washington and more than a hundred correspondents worldwide.