Media freedom lags far behind other ‘liberties’

December 9, 2003
Singapore Democrats

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Roxanne Toh
IPS
8 December 2003

Singapore has been loosening controls over a range of activities — from legalising bungee jumping to bar-top dancing and the employment of homosexuals — but its officials’ recent statements are a reminder that more media freedom remains quite far behind.

In recent months and weeks, discussions relating to the role of local and foreign media and Singapore’s ambitions for becoming a ‘global media city’ show that the city-state remains very cautious about easing up when it comes to the press.

While it wants to become a hub for international and regional media, it is at the same time wary about negative — and in its view unconstructive — coverage of and comment on Singapore.

In November, Minister for Information, Communications and the Arts (MITA) Lee Boon Yang was quoted as saying that local journalists need to remain firm in serving the national interest and ”to attract more international media”.

But at the same time, he issued warnings to foreign journalists, saying that the local media should not be used to amplify their ideas of government and media policies.

Lee made his comments in the wake of the controversy over an article that the free-circulating daily newspaper ‘Today’ published, written by Australian expert in Asian corporate practice Michael Backman who, Lee said, had ”crossed (the) line”.

In his commentary ‘Is Singapore Paranoid?’ in October, Backman said Singapore still maintains ”the old fashioned, outmoded trappings of a Third World dictatorship” — yet it does not have anything to hide.

He also argued that it needs to cultivate the ”freedom to be wrong”, which is parallel to media freedom. Bar-top dancing is just ”sleaze”, not reform or liberalism, Backman concluded.

Critics find officials’ approach to Backman’s arguments — and their objections to the fact that a local paper ran his views — contradictory to what the Remaking Singapore Committee (RSC), aimed at pushing a more open society and at addressing economic woes, had set out to do when it was established in February 2002.

In its July 2003 report to the government, the committee mentioned that ”the relationship between government and the people should not be viewed as a zero-sum game”, and that the three qualities that had helped Singapore progress rapidly include ”decisive government action, close people-government partnership and open communication channels”.

But if a ‘remade’ Singapore shall ”embrace a diversity of peoples and ideas”, sceptics wonder why foreign journalists, who can contribute to ”the development of our governance and political maturity”, are excluded, as Joseph Wong Kok Sen wrote in a Nov. 19 letter to the ‘The Straits Times’ newspaper here.

On the same day that Lee made his remarks, Singapore’s Senior Minister Lee Kuan Yew defined television as a tool of guidance which if, it loses credibility, would fail to serve its purpose.

He added that local market is too small to support two companies that run several television stations — Mediacorp and Singapore Press Holdings’ Mediaworks — in remarks interpreted as discouraging more media variety and choices in the country. His remarks were a ”subtle warning” that one of these two key media companies bring its shutters down, claimed an anonymous member of the volunteer group Singapore Internet Community (Sintercom) Forum.

”I was disappointed to hear the government concluded that the market is too small because that’s far from clear,” Cherian George, author of the book ‘Singapore: The Air-Conditioned Nation, The Media and New Politics’, told IPS.

”Just because the two dominant players in the Singapore media haven’t found the way to operate all their businesses profitably, it doesn’t necessarily mean others can’t make it,” continued George, a postdoctoral fellow at the National University of Singapore’s Asia Research Institute.

”They are assuming that these two dominant players have exhausted the potential of the Singapore market,” he added.

But Lee Boon Yang’s remarks came as no surprise to Sinapan Samydorai of Think Centre, a non-government group trying to push discussion of politics and human rights in a society that frowns on open dissent. It is ”not new a pattern for the last few years,” he said.

According to ThinkCentre.org, Think Centre’s Internet portal, Singapore is ranked 144th this year in the Second World Press Freedom Ranking by the Paris-based non-government group Reporters Without Borders.

There are 165 other countries in the ranking, with the United States at the 31st position and Cuba the last.

At a Radio Singapore International talk show in October, Mark Cenite, assistant professor at Nanyang Technological University’s School of Communication and Information, said that the challenges to media in the here are different from other countries.

”If you talk to these folks?what you find is they describe a climate of some fear. I mean, nothing comparable to the situation you have in some countries on the list where reporters face violence as reprisals for stories,” he explained. ”But reporters here do describe a situation where they are walking on eggshells.”

Some foreign news agencies have regional offices in Singapore, but the government tends not to look too much at news meant for circulation outside the country. The government, however, has in the past stopped circulation of magazines it deemed to carry unsuitable material.

Singapore laws require permits to publish newspapers. The newspaper and printing presses act of 1974 also requires permission for the distribution, importation and sale of ”any offshore newspaper” in Singapore.

Often, however, George says this ”principle” is used against individuals, as in the recent furore over Backman’s comments in ‘Today’, which is owned by Mediacorp.

”He wasn’t writing in an offshore publication but in a Singaporean newspaper, with a Singapore licence to publish. It raises questions – most obviously what is the role of editorial judgement in publishing such pieces?” challenged George.

Some say it is time a country that has progressed so much since its inception in 1959 became more confident and let its people speak out and decide for themselves.

Jack Sai, a final year mass communication student at Ngee Ann Polytechnic, cites as an example the public debate involving officials, academics and sex workers in Thailand on legalising prostitution.

”Such issues need to be discussed very honestly because they affect the country’s economy and morality, which are cornerstones of a nation. Bungee jumping and bar- top dancing are merely associated with fun,” he said in an interview.

He continued, ”The fact that the (Thai) government treasured the opinions of even the prostitutes themselves goes a long way in showing that everyone is important, and all should be given a chance to speak.”

Dharmendra Yadav feels Lee Boon Yang’s remarks in November are a ”mockery” of Singapore’s education system, as he wrote in a letter to MITA, a university and newspapers.

”Surely, after more than 10 years of sound but competitive education, the reasonable individual can be expected to separate news from comment,” he said. ”Readers, listeners and viewers are today far more discerning than those of the past.”