Wikileaks: PAP ensures positive press coverage

Singapore Democrats

Viewing cable: Singapore

Topic: Journalists Frustrated by Press Controls
Released: 2011-08-30
Origin: US Embassy Singapore

1. Summary: Singapore journalists say they are increasingly frustrated with GOS-imposed limits on their domestic reporting. Political leaders put pressure on the Straits Times (ST) staff to ensure that the paper’s domestic coverage follows the government line.

Reporters say they are eager to produce more investigative and critical reporting, but they are stifled by editors who have been groomed to tow the line. Some reporters seek an outlet for their journalistic passions by serving as overseas correspondents, where ST allows reporters much greater latitude; others consider plying their trade elsewhere. Given that media restrictions are no greater now than in the past, reporters’ increasing frustration may reflect this generation’s rising expectations.

2. Comment: The traditional media in Singapore are certainly no more restricted today than they have ever been, and other than on race and religion, online speech is generally unrestricted. That raises the question why reporters seem to be complaining more, or at least more openly. We suspect this reflects in part a generational shift; younger Singaporeans are accustomed to having more latitude, and it likely grates on reporters not to be able to say in print the kind of things people routinely say in cafes or online. It may also be that the leaderships, own frequent suggestions of the need for (incremental) political reforms may be raising expectations that so far have not been met.

Government ensures positive local press coverage

3. Singapore journalists tell us they are increasingly frustrated with the obstacles they face in reporting on sensitive domestic issues. Reporters have to be careful in their coverage of local news, as Singapore’s leaders will likely come down hard on anyone who reports negative stories about the government or its leadership, name witheld (strictly protect), the new Straits Times (ST) U.S. Bureau Chief (former China Bureau Chief) told Poloff January 6. There is a growing disconnect between ST’s reporters and its editors, with the reporters wanting to do more investigative and critical stories than the editors will allow. Name witheld lamented that the ST editors have all been groomed as pro-government supporters and are careful to ensure that reporting of local events adheres closely to the official line. Name witheld said that unless one of the editors is a “Trojan Horse,” someone that for years has successfully concealed any non pro-government leanings, none of them has the courage to publish any stories critical of the government.

4. The government exerts significant pressure on ST editors to ensure that published articles follow the government’s line, name witheld said. In the past, the editors had to contend only with the opinions of former Prime Minister Lee Kuan Yew (now Minister Mentor) and former Deputy Prime Minister Goh Chok Tong (now Senior Minister). However, a younger generation of government ministers is now vying for future leadership positions and one way for them to burnish their credentials with the old guard is to show they can be tough with the media, Name witheld said. As a result, several current ministers and second ministers (name witheld did not say which ones) routinely call ST editors to ensure that media coverage of an issue comes out the way they want it. While name witheld admitted that he knew of no editors who had been fired or otherwise punished for printing articles critical of the government, he said that is because all of the them have been vetted to ensure their pro-government leanings.

5. Name witheld speculated that while Lee’s eventual passing may encourage the media to open up, the current crop of ST staff would only dare to buck the government’s line if it were clear that the majority of Singaporeans were already opposed to the government’s policy. Even then, the media would tread carefully as the government has an established track record of using the press, the ST in particular, to shape public opinion.

6. Name witheld admitted that domestically focused ST articles often read like Public Service Announcements. Name witheld noted that how the government intends to push a certain policy is often foreshadowed by extensive media coverage (published before the official policy announcements). As an example, name witheld pointed to the government’s recent decision to assist retirees who lost investments in “mini-bonds” following the collapse of Lehman Brothers (ref A). That decision followed a spate of media coverage casting the retirees, plight in sympathetic terms.

7. In contrast to the informal restrictions placed on domestic reporting, ST reporters are given wide latitude in their coverage of international events. Name witheld said he enjoyed a great deal of freedom during his stint as ST’s China Bureau Chief, and he expects to enjoy similar freedom during his new assignment as U.S. Bureau Chief. However, due to the expectations placed on editors, name witheld said he would likely never advance higher up the ladder at ST.

ST reporter confirms local media restrictions

8. Name witheld (strictly protect), a reporter for ST, confirmed the disconnect between editors and reporters. Name witheld highlighted the internal debate over the amount of coverage that the paper would dedicate to opposition icon J.B. Jeyaretnam (JBJ) following his death in September 2008. Name witheld said that while the editors agreed with reporters’ demand for extensive coverage of JBJ political career and funeral (ref B), they rejected reporters’ suggestions to limit the amount of coverage devoted to (relatively long) eulogies provided by Singapore’s leaders. The leaders’ statements took up a significant portion of the allotted space, name witheld lamented.

9. Name witheld also admitted that reporters practice self-censorship. Recalling the case of a journalist in Malaysia who was arrested for reprinting a politician’s racially charged comments, name witheld noted she would never write about any racially sensitive issues. However, self-censorship is not really needed as most censorship is done by the editors, name witheld said. Name witheld, who is now one of ST’s Indonesia correspondents, echoed name witheld‘s comments about having greater freedom to report stories (without censorship) while abroad. Highlighting her discouragement with her life as a Singapore journalist, name witheld said she considers her current Indonesia assignment as a one-year test case that will determine whether or not she stays in the profession.

Novice journalists also wary of system

10. Singapore’s journalism students think twice about building careers at home in the first place, according to online student journalist name witheld (strictly protect). Name witheld and two classmates in the journalism school at Nanyang Technological University started their own online newspaper, The Enquirer, to write free of editorial interference after the existing University-funded student newspaper refused to cover a campus visit by opposition politician Chee Soon Juan. When asked how he would reconcile his journalistic ideals with the realities of a career in Singapore, name witheld told Poloff that he feared it would be too “stifling” to remain here. Instead, he foresaw spending one or two apprentice years here before working somewhere else. Many of name witheld‘s journalism-school classmates think the same way, he said.