The press is freer in Lion City? Hogwash!

Josh Hong
3 December 2004

Now, this is news.

The Freedom House has just published its annual Press Freedom Survey. Singapore, the island state that produces Asias best managed economy and the regions tightest controlled democracy – an oxymoron of sorts – must be overjoyed to know that it has not done too badly after all.

Some Malaysians, although mentally prepared for the dismal performance and close-to-bottom ranking of the Malaysian press, are however shocked to learn that the country had been rather discourteously positioned behind Singapore, the neighbour that a large chunk of the Malaysian population watches with inexplicable bittersweet feeling.

Since the release of the survey, I have come across a few negative responses from some quarters within the Malaysian society. First, the Malaysian Media Monitor’s found itself impossible to contain its indignation, and was quick to question the credibility of the survey.

To that effect, the Monitor has cited a similar annual press freedom survey by the Reporters Sans Frontieres (RSF), in which Malaysia is judged to have fared better than Singapore when it comes to the issue of press freedom, being ranked at 122, ahead of the island by 25.

Neo-con organisation?

Perhaps not by coincidence, I have always trusted the professionalism and neutrality of the RSF more than whatever is preached by the Freedom House. Not only because the RSF is made up of journalists the world over, who have to constantly overcome all the hurdles that the power-hungry state can institute, and face all the risks that the devious state machine can exact in order to make inroad into the state’s absolute access to information, it is also because the organisation is pragmatic enough to focus solely on issues pertaining to international journalism, instead of running an non-profit enterprise in a jack-of-all-trades-and-master-of-none fashion, which precisely is what the Freedom House is doing.

How have I come to this rather amateurish and unrefined conclusion? Well, just click on the mission statement of the Freedom House, and one will fight hard not to be bemused and dazzled by the myriad ambitions of the organisation in many areas of concerns in the world today: political liberation, religious diversity, economic prosperity and, of course, press freedom, all under one big roof.

Little surprise that Sergei Markov, director of the Institute for Political Studies in Izvestia, Russia, is piqued by the irritatingly far-reaching tentacles of the US-based organisation, which have extended deep into the chaos and turmoil following the recent presidential election in Ukraine. Some even go as far as to say Freedom House is nothing but a neo-con breeding ground. Well, I am not prepared to accept this charge without more concrete signs and evidence.

Not to gainsay the worth of the Freedom House, one must acknowledge and be grateful for the fact that having two annual press freedom surveys, produced by two ideologically opposed organisations, is better than one huge non-profit media entity running all the shows. In this respect, I would say it is always in one’s interest to compare and analyse the findings of the Freedom House and the RSF. A leftist I may be, but do excuse me for employing the capitalist motto that competition is b etter than monopolisation.

Possible factors

Lest the envy of Singapore’s economic success jaundice our judgment, it is perhaps worthwhile to delve a bit into the possible factors that have informed the findings by the Freedom House. Two days after the Freedom House report was out, a member of Word-up, an e-group that I subscribe to, sent a well-argued note that the surprise ranking of Singapore could be due to the fact that the Freedom House only assesses mainstream media in Singapore, leaving out alternative news channels altogether. See in this light, my fellow wordupper agrees that the Singapore media indeed is more open than its Malaysian counterpart.

Outrageous? Even I, a diehard believer in press freedom and incurable sceptic of media control, have to concur with him. At least, the Straits Times reader is spared the nightmare of having to digest the out-and-out pro-princeling propaganda masqueraded as opinions, as what Kalimullah Hassan did earlier this year to come to Khairy Jamaluddins defence when the the most influential 29-years-old was in troubled waters.

Over there in the Lion City, media control takes a much subtler form, which requires the sophisticated mind to scratch deep under the surface to find out the truths. In general, articles and commentaries that appear in the Lian He Zao Bao and the Straits Times are of better quality and greater depth so long as they dont touch on domestic politics.

It is also a well-recognised fact that the Singapore media, the Business Times especially, never shirks negative news on the economic front. One can argue business transparency is a proven winning formula for the resource-scarce republic, but is there any Malaysian out there who dares say he or she would approve of the way the government here seeks to bury any unfavourable business news deep inside the pages? Hmm, I am always prepared to second guess my observations.

One more factor to consider is, still my humble view, the excessive US-bashing rhetoric that permeated the editorial rooms all over Malaysia until the graceful departure of Dr Mahathir Mohamad late last year. And what did Lee Kuan Yew make of the recent re-election of George W Bush as president? Friends, it does take time to mend a broken heart. If you want to improve our ranking in the Freedom House report, learn something from our neighbour lah.

Dignity maligned

So, our vibrant alternative media is slighted, and our dignity as Malaysians hurt. But would one realistically believe an inclusion of Harakah and malaysiakini in the survey would have moved Malaysia a few places up, or even take over Singapore? I doubt it.

As seen in its mission statement, the Freedom House is driven by a group of do-gooders imbued with self-righteousness, who also happen to be honest believers in American soft and benign power. For an organisation as such to develop some affinity with the increasingly anti-US Harakah, one would have greater chances of success expecting snow to fall on Malaysia.

And what about malaysiakini? Hey, wasn’t its editorial stand against the war on Iraq? Would one be so naive to believe the moralists in the Freedom House would be well-disposed to the most popular online news channel in Malaysia after this?

I must reiterate I am more inclined to trust the impartiality of the RSF. After all, at the height of the Anwar Ibrahim incident in the late 1990s, Harakah suddenly emerged as a gigantic rival to deconstruct all the li es and concoctions of the Umno-led coalition.

And it was barely a week ago when close to 1,000 people thronged Flamingo Hotel in Ampang, Kuala Lumpur, to wish the five-year-old malaysiakini a very happy birthday, under the watchful eyes of the Special Branch of course.

I must therefore conclude this article by asking: where is Singapore’s answer to Harakah? And when indeed will Singapore’s tech-savvy population be able to see their Steven Gan, Premesh Chandran, Jeff Ooi, Nash Rahman and so on in action?

%d bloggers like this: