At least, we’re better than Djibouti

June 11, 2005
Singapore Democrats

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It’s so tragic you don’t know whether to cry or laugh.

Cry, because the latest results of the Freedom of the Press Global Survey 2005 conducted by Freedom House shows Singapore still languishing near the bottom of the list.

Laugh, because our Straits Times staunchly insists, Comical Ali-style, that it is a respectable broadsheet. (Our intrepid journalists have even gone so far as to campaign for the release of one of their colleagues detained by China.)

In this latest survey, Singapore stands at 139th out of 194 countries, sharing the ranking with Angola, Bhutan, Gabon, and Haiti. At least, we can take heart that we’re above Djibouti.

Of course, the Information Minister will insist that we are unique because we don’t practice the adversarial style of journalism (whatever that means). Anytime now the Angolan, Bhutanese, Gabonese, and Haitian ministers will be saying the same.

Freedom of the press country report

Singapore
Status: Not Free
Legal Environment: 23
Political Environment: 24
Economic Environment: 19
Total Score: 66

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 countrys criminal laws on permissible speech. The constitution provides the right to freedom of speech and expression in Article 14 but permits restrictions on these
rights.

Legal constraints include strict censorship laws; the Newspaper and Printing Presses Act, which allows authorities to restrict the circulation of any foreign periodical for publishing news that interferes in domestic politics; and the Internal Security Act (ISA).

Although not implemented in recent years, the ISA gives government powers to restrict publications that incite violence, arouse racial or religious tension, or threaten national interest, national security, or public order. Given the governments record of successfully suing critics under harsh criminal defamation laws, journalists most often refrain from publishing critical stories about corruption or nepotism.

The Economist agreed to pay a fine of more than US $200,000 in September in order to avoid a lawsuit over an article it had published that charged a government-linked investment company with lacking transparency.

The government has mastered the art of calibrated coercion, in the words of a veteran Singapore journalist. The vast majority of print and broadcast media outlets, as well as 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.

Moreover, annual licensing requirements cause media outlets to limit or moderate their criticism of the government. The primary development on the media scene in 2004 was the mega merger between two giantsSingapore Press Holdings, which publishes 14 paid newspapers and one free paper in four official languages, including the flagship Straits Times, and Media Corp TV Holdings, which operates five television stations, one free newspaper, and Media Corp Studios. The merger was agreed upon to stop four years of cutthroat competition, ending any semblance of competition and diversity in the Singapore mass media, which virtually without exception supports the government line.

International newspapers and magazines are available, although authorities have at times banned or censored foreign publications that carry articles the government found offensive. The circulations of some Western-owned publications are gazetted, or limited.