Singapore’s media drops from 146th to 154th

Freedom House
04 May 07

Status: Not Free
Legal Environment: 24
Political Environment: 24
Economic Environment: 21
Total Score: 69

Media freedom in Singapore is constrained to such a degree that the vast majority of journalists practice self-censorship rather than risk being charged with defamation or breaking the country’s criminal laws on permissible speech.

The Singapore constitution guarantees the right to freedom of speech and expression in Article 14, but it also permits restrictions on these rights. Media freedom in Singapore is constrained by the Newspapers and Printing Presses Act, the Defamation Act, and the Internal Security Act, all of which allow authorities to restrict the circulation of news deemed to incite violence, arouse racial or religious tensions, interfere in domestic politics, or threaten public order, national interest or national security.

The government proposed a series of amendments to the Penal Code in 2006 that would cover offenses committed via electronic media. The draft amendments would not only provide jail terms or fines for defamation, “statements that would cause public mischief,” and the “wounding” of racial or religious feeling, they would also make it a crime for anyone outside the country to abet an offense committed inside the country, thereby allowing the authorities to prosecute internet users living abroad. Singaporean students studying overseas are the presumed targets of this amendment.

The Singapore government is quick to sue critics under harsh criminal defamation laws. In May 2006, for example, Prime Minister Lee Hsien Loong and his father, First Minister Kee Kuan Yew, filed criminal charges against the publishers of opposition newspaper The New Democrat, which is published several times a year by a committee of the Singapore Democratic Party.

The lawsuit started with an unsigned story that described as “secretive and non-accountable” the ruling party’s handling of a corruption scandal at the National Kidney Foundation.

Foreign media in Singapore are also subject to restrictive laws. In August, after the Far Eastern Economic Review published an interview with opposition party leader Chee Soon Juan, FEER and four other foreign publications were advised that they needed to post bonds and appoint legal representatives in order to continue to operate in Singapore. When FEER did not comply, its circulation permit was revoked, thereby effectively banning the publication. Meanwhile, on September 14, the Prime Minister and his father filed defamation suits against FEER over the article.

Nearly all print and broadcast media outlets, internet service providers, and cable television services are either owned or controlled by the state, or by companies with close ties to the ruling party. Annual licensing requirements for all media outlets, including political and religious web sites, have been used to inhibit criticism of the government.

Approximately two thirds of the population had access to the internet in 2006. Nonetheless, the government restricts internet access and Singapore has zero-tolerance for bloggers who challenge the government in any way. Prior to the May 6 Parliamentary elections, the Communications and Arts Minister warned bloggers and website managers that they do not have the right to back a particular candidate’s program or to express opinions on political issues. These same rules were applied to other new media, including podcasting and videocasting.

On April 26, the opposition Singapore Democratic Party was ordered to withdraw a podcast from its website. In June, popular blogger Lee Kin Mun (aka “Mr Brown”) was informed by state-owned Today newspaper that his weekly column, which had satirized the high cost of living, would be suspended. On November 6, a judge ordered Yap Keng Ho, a member of the opposition, to remove from his blog a video of himself speaking in public during the general elections.

(Note: The Singapore media’s ranking of 146th out of 167 countries is in the survey conducted by Reporters Without Borders).

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