Singapore faces blogging ire over militant escape

Melanie Lee
7 Mar 08

Singapore’s state-controlled media and government have come under fire from critics and Internet bloggers for failing to give the public important answers on the escape of a suspected Islamic militant.

With a cynical eye cast on local newspapers such as the pro-government daily, the Straits Times, critics say media coverage has skirted key issues and so more people were turning to alternatives such as blogs for a differing viewpoint.

“The mainstream media did its job of trying to play down the most shameful part of the incident. It is a blow to Singapore’s image as being efficient,” Seah Chiang Nee, a political commentator and former Singapore newspaper editor, told Reuters.

“The more Internet savvy would not depend on the mainstream media for news of what’s happening in the country, they would go to the Internet,” said Seah.

Mas Selamat bin Kastari, the alleged leader of the Singapore cell of al Qaeda-linked Jemaah Islamiah, a group blamed for the 2002 Bali bombings that killed 202 people, escaped on Wednesday last week from the toilet of a detention centre.

Security experts said the escape was embarrassing for a country that prides itself on tight security. The escape sparked an unprecedented manhunt in the small island and a rare apology from the government, who blamed a “security lapse”. But few further details of his escape have since been released.

Cherian George, an ex-Straits Times journalist and media lecturer, wrote on the Internet that the Singapore media had not answered the “immediate” question of how Kastari escaped.

“The question is so natural and so obvious that you’d think anyone barely paying attention would ask it. Unless, apparently, one worked for the national news media,” George wrote.

Loss of credibility

George said the absence of this question was due to media management by the government and that the main result would be a loss of credibility for the national media that would push readers to other sources.

Letters to The Straits Times have also poured scorn on the government’s handling of the crisis and flow of information.

“I am disturbed by the security lapse … more explanation is required,” wrote Rosemary Chwee Keng Chai in a letter.

Patrick Daniel, editor-in-chief of the Straits Times, told Reuters by email that the paper took its responsibility to readers seriously and that George was “utterly wrong” in his conclusion or that its journalists had never asked questions on how Kastari escaped.

“If Cherian had checked with us, we would have told him that we asked that question, and many others too, many times,” he said, adding the paper had run an article exploring the issue headlined “How did he manage to escape?” on Friday.

Reuters, a global news and information provider, repeatedly asked the Ministry of Home Affairs for more details on the escape but was either referred to its initial five-line statement or was unable to reach its spokeswoman on by telephone.

Singapore retains a tight grip on its national newspapers through a comprehensive legal framework that requires, among other things, a publication permit to be granted at the discretion of the minister. A substantial shareholder of a newspaper company must also gain approval of a minister.

“I think that there was tacit understanding between the government and the media,” Catherine Lim, a prominent local author and political commentator, told Reuters.

“It’s a good working relationship. Local media would never be as inquisitive, probing or rambunctious as the Western media.”

Some bloggers had a field day, morphing Kastari’s face onto a poster for TV series Prison Break and saying even students doing examinations in the city-state were accompanied to the toilet.

“We are not like those free-wheeling and chaotic governments from Western democracies that make their leaders accountable for every little thing,” wrote Lee Kin Mun, better known under his online moniker ‘Mr Brown’, Singapore’s most famous blogger.

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