Sg Review responds to Govt on censorship and press

14 October 2003

ST Forum
Singapore Press Holdings

Dear Sir,

I refer to the letter from K Bhavani (Ms), Press Secretary to the Minister for Information, Communications and the Arts in the 13 Oct 2003 issue of TODAY. Ms Bhavani stated (amongst other things) that: “Singaporeans have access to 10 daily local newspapers, over 5,500 foreign publications and newspapers, seven free-to-air TV channels, numerous radio channels and 37 subscription TV channels, including BBC World and CNN”

Ms Bhavani’s letter and statements should be read with the following qualifications in mind:

1. STATE CONTROL OF THE MEDIA IN SINGAPORE IS SO COMPLETE that few dare challenge the system and there is no longer much need for the ruling party to arrest or harass journalists. Even foreign correspondents have learned to be cautious when reporting on Singapore, since the government has frequently hauled the international press into court to face lengthy and expensive libel suits.

2. The ruling People’s Action Party (PAP) controls most local media, through its close ties with Singapore Press Holdings, whose newspaper monopoly ended only in 2000, and through state ownership of most broadcast media. Strict press licensing requirements make it impossible for independent newspapers to emerge, and journalists have been taught to think of themselves not as critics but as partners of the state in “nation-building.”

3. Satellite television dishes are banned for all but a handful of users, and cable television is a state monopoly. While the Internet has been censored only half-heartedly, the government has been aggressive in promoting its own sites to disseminate information about state policies and procedures. “Alternative New Groups” like Singapore Review, The Optical etc are often victimised and subject to harassment and persecution under local laws.

4. In response to calls for more diverse media voices in the country, a handful of new free tabloid newspapers were launched (TODAY, STREATS, NEWPAPER to name a few). These publications, which look but do not read like free alternative newspapers in the United,States, were are controlled by corporations affiliated with the government. Singapore Press Holdings (in which Temasek Holdings retains a stake) owns and manages all the local newspapers circulated in Singapore (including the Chinese and Tamil editions).

5. In an apparent effort to create the illusion of free competition, Singapore Press Holdings received permission to run TV and radio stations. This was hardly a risky move for the government, since the company’s chief executive used to head the Singapore internal security agency, and its board chairman was an ex-cabinet minister and close confidant of former prime minister Lee Kuan Yew. Meanwhile, the state-owned broadcasting giant Media Corporation of Singapore, was awarded a license to publish one of the free newspapers, Today. In August, The Straits Times, Singapore’s leading daily, described this shuffling of a stacked deck as a “newspaper war.”

6. Previously, public speaking without a license was banned everywhere in the country. In September, authorities allowed a Hyde Park-style Speaker’s Corner to open in a local park. There seemed to be little public interest in the handful of eager speakers at the new venue, however. In fact, it is a revelation that it is still illegal to assemble in groups of more then five in a public place without a permit.

7. Singapore is a country which has adoted the FORM of a written constitution, but has not applied the actual spirit of a the written constitution into daily practise in the course of state administration. Mere lip service is given to public policies which are meant to showcase to the world the existence of a free press/free speech social-political environment in Singapore.

8. Singapore also has the dubious honour of being on the black list of several free-speech/free press organisations like CPJ (Committee To Protect Journalists) as well as Amnesty International. Please feel free to visit their
websites below.

9. Lee Kuan Yew, the architect of what many critics have called Singapore’s “nanny state,” remained the object of fawning praise in local media. In a volume of memoirs published in October, Lee argued that the authoritarian system he created, which closed independent newspapers and jailed some journalists after independence in 1959, was more responsive to the needs of his people than the flawed democracies in other Asian countries.

“I said I did not accept that a newspaper owner had the right to print whatever he liked,” Lee wrote of a 1971 appearance at the International Press Institute’s annual assembly in Helsinki. “Unlike Singapore’s ministers, he and his journalists were not elected. My final words to the conference were: ‘Freedom of the press, freedom of the news media, must be subordinated to the overriding needs of Singapore, and to the primacy of purpose of an elected government.'”

In 2003, this unfortunate view continued to guide Singapore’s media policy. Strict censorship and a tame press continue to characterize the press freedom climate in the city-state, which promulgated regulations designed to keep a range of prohibited information from reaching its citizens by the Internet. Using the threat of costly lawsuits, harsh national security legislation, and decades of indoctrination, Singapore’s ruling People’s Action Party, which has been in power since independence in 1959, has fashioned a predictably bland media culture.

Singapore Press Holdings Ltd., a private corporation with close ties to the government, controls all general-circulation newspapers. The government-linked Singapore International Media PTE Ltd. has a virtual monopoly on broadcasting. Satellite dishes are banned with few exceptions. The government has successfully prosecuted numerous domestic and foreign journalists in the past, and as a result of previous run-ins with the government, many foreign publications have their circulation strictly controlled by the government. Such is the case with The Asian Wall Street Journal, the Far Eastern Economic Review, and Asia Week, the three leading regional news publications.

The Internet regulations allow unhindered access for commercial users while preventing private users from having access to a wide range of sites. The Singapore Broadcasting Authority (SBA) requires Internet service providers to block sites the government identifies as taboo because of their political or sexual content. The SBA also requires political and religious societies to register their Singapore-based websites. Singapore’s government has set a goal of becoming a regional center for both on-line commerce and Internet-control technology. The government considers its Internet controls to be a success and an example to other nations in the region, but the tightly regulated environment for the press at all levels in Singapore is anathema to the promise of unhindered information flow promised by the Internet.

Perhaps you may care to shed further light on the above. My final word is that the government’s stand on free press issues (which is echoed by your respective papers) is reflected by the fact that this letter will never see publication in any SPH paper in its original unedited form.

Yours faithfully,

Mellanie Hewlitt
Singapore Review

The letter was rejected by ST Forum, TODAY and SPH.

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