Press Freedom in Singapore: Allowing space or just making promises?

January 30, 2009
Singapore Democrats

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Southeast Asia Press Alliance

On Singapore’s National Day Celebrations on 17 August 2008, Singapore Prime Minister Lee Hsien Loong — acknowledging the advent of new media and perhaps recognizing the futility and irony of trying to control all news and opinion in the Information Age — announced that the government will ease a long-standing ban on political films and outdoor public demonstrations.

“An outright ban is no longer sensible,” the Prime Minister said — but he quickly noted that any relaxation of restrictions must still be guided by “safeguards.”

Singapore’s community of bloggers were quick to weigh the sincerity of their leaders to open space for free expression and press freedom. Independent filmmaker Martyn See said there was only one way to find out, and that is to apply for the open exhibition of political films. See himself has had at least two of his documentaries prohibited from public screenings.

It will indeed be interesting to see how the Singaporean government will receive such applications in the coming year. Singapore does not hide the fact that in the city state, civil liberties, especially freedom of expression, take a backseat to economic development objectives.

Uncompromising

The Prime Minister’s personal statements notwithstanding, Singapore’s notorious laws impacting on press freedom and freedom of expression will likely remain uncompromising. These include the city-state’s defamation law, the Printing Press Act, the Newspapers and Printing Presses Act, the Undesirable Publications Act, Broadcasting Act, and of course, the Internal Security Act, Films Act, and Official Secrets Act.

The net result of all of the above is that, although the country has 10 newspapers and six magazines, three broadcasting companies that oversee several TV and radio stations, 15 satellite broadcasters and a cable TV provider, they are all effectively monopolized by the government, primarily under the government-owned Singapore Press Holdings and Mediacorp which runs broadcasting operations.

Self-censorship is pervasive and somewhat inevitable. Singaporean journalists, academics, writers, and artists daily refer to “OB markers” — a nebulous, vague, yet all too real concept that is ingrained in the minds of anybody in Singapore who has anything to say. “OB” stands for whatever it is that government may consider “out-of-bounds”, and although (or precisely because) such markers are unofficial, in fact unwritten, its net is cast wide by individual minds, and creates for a suffocating environment where the limits of one’s freedom to express is defined by citizens themselves.

Bankrupt

Where OB markers are ignored, Singapore’s defamation laws and their consequent fines are unforgiving. Singapore Democratic Party leader Dr. Chee Soon Juan has been bankrupted at least twice over by defamation suits brought against him by Singapore’s leaders.

Conservatism is a default mode in any medium presuming a Singaporean audience — whether it be television, radio, print, or the Internet. OB markers are often invoked on the strength of Singapore’s laws on national security, official secrets, and social harmony (none of which have actually been changed by the Prime Minister’s pronouncements), and a judicial system that the International Bar Association in 2008 denounced as politicized and partial when it comes to speech crimes brought to court by political leaders.

Even the foreign media are famously vulnerable in Singapore, having already paid in years past millions of dollars in defamation fees to former Prime Minister Lee Kuan Yew and his handpicked successors, former PM Goh Chok Tong and Lee’s son, the incumbent Lee Hsien Loong. In 2007 the government revised rules governing the circulation and operation of foreign publications in the Singapore, requiring the appointment of a Singaporean citizen in the management structure that, critics say, was stipulated largely for the purpose of creating a pressure point that makes the threat of litigation that much more intimidating.

In September 2008, a Singaporean court found the “Far Easter Economic Review” and its editor, Hugo Restall, guilty of criminal defamation. The lawsuit was filed by former prime minister Lee Kuan Yew and his son the incumbent Prime Minister Lee Hsein Loong. That same month, Singapore-based American lawyer Gopalan Nair was sentenced to 3 months’ imprisonment for criticizing a court decision in his blog.

Singapore’s high court in November found the Hong Kong-based Wall Street Journal Asia in contempt of court and fined it 25,000 Singapore dollars (approx.12,700 euros) for publishing two editorials and a letter by an opposition leader questioning the country’s judicial system.

Summary judgments

With the PAP maintaining an iron grip in the city state since it came to power in 1959, the country’s leaders have come up with a panoply of laws to legitimize its suppression of freedom of expression.

Compounding this is the Singaporean judicial mechanism of “summary judgments” where the complainants can petition courts to render decisions without basis of hearings. Summary judgments are perceived to be vulnerable to political bias, particularly when defamation suits, for example, are brought forward by government and/or government officials.

Such cases are in fact not uncommon, with Singaporean government officials winning lawsuits and receiving hundreds of thousands of dollars worth of damages.

The new media offers no haven from the pressures. Singapore does not block content on the Net — save for a token 100 websites that mostly have to do with pornography — but in 2007 and 2008, media and information ministers have thought aloud about extending the strict rules applying to the media, from licensing to criminal defamation, to also be applied to blogs and other online media.

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