Reform of legislation governing newspapers necessary

May 28, 2002
Singapore Democrats

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*K S Lee, a broadcast media professional, contributes this article in a personal capacity. For feedback, please e-mail [email protected]

Senior Minister Lee Kuan Yew once said “freedom of the press, freedom of the news media, must be subordinated to the overriding needs of the integrity of Singapore, and to the primary purposes of an elected government”.

The media environment in Singapore is a unique one. As a non-communist country, we have one of the most regulated press in Asia. Media ownership in Singapore is carefully regulated and foreign players, including foreign press operating outside of the country, are reminded to keep their hands off the local politics. The Singapore Press Holdings (SPH) owns the majority of dailies and magazines in the city while the Media Corporation of Singapore (MCS) dominates the broadcasting media.

If you look at the breakdown of Singapore’s overall ADEX in 1999, you will see that newspapers dominate half of the country’s ad spending.

ADEX IN 1999

  • Newspapers 50.0%
  • TV 33.6%
  • Radio 5.1%
  • Magazines 5.3%
  • Posters 2.7%
  • Bus & Taxi 1.8%
  • Cinema & other 1.5%

    Newspapers sell eyeballs to their advertisers and the ADEX is indication of how pervasive the newspaper is as a medium in the local context, based on ad spending. In Singapore, whenever there is a pervasive and influential medium, there will exist regulations. The main pieces of legislation governing the operations of newspapers and journalists in Singapore include:

  • Newspaper and Printing Presses Act 1974
  • The Internal Security Act
  • Defamation Act
  • Children and Young Persons Act
  • Official Secrets Act
  • Undesirable Publication Act
  • Essential Regulation (control of publications & safeguarding of information)
  • New Printing Presses (Application & Permits) Rules

    We have heard time and time again, the whole discourse of how Singapore being a multi-racial country, justifies the need for a central body like the government to intervene to prevent misuse and abuse an asset like the media. Those who champion for a less liberal press and continual existence of the above legislation often use development journalism as a reason. However, with some of these legislations erected more than two decades ago when nation building was an issue, it makes one wonder if they are still relevant to the media scene today, especially when Singapore is already striving to be a regional hub for communication.

    Hypothetically, if I am ambitious and/or rich enough to publish my own newspaper in Singapore, the law makes clear that the government will have to interfere with my company prior to getting a permit. The Newspaper and Printing Presses Act (Chap. 206) is there for a reason – government control. This is an Act for the licensing of newspaper companies and issues connected therewith. No newspaper is to be published without a permit. The Act requires the company to have two classes of shares, “management shares” and “ordinary shares” before a permit can be granted.

    According to Section 10, clause 1, “No person shall, without the prior approval of the Minister, hold either directly or indirectly through his nominees more than 3% of the ordinary shares issued by a newspaper company.” This means that as a citizen with no affiliation to the government, I, or any other individual cannot own more than 3 per cent of a newspaper company.

    In any case, if I truly wish to run a newspaper company, common sense will tell me to go for the management shares, right? Well here comes another stumbling block – the Act also stipulates that “management shares” can only be held by persons approved by the government and cannot be sold to unapproved persons. The management shares holder approved by the government also has more voting power than his ordinary share counterpart as indicated in Section 9, clause 8 that “the holder of management shares shall be entitled either on a poll or by a show of hands to 200 votes for each management share held by him upon any resolution relating to the appointment or dismissal of a director or any member of staff of a newspaper company but shall in all other respects have the same voting rights as the holder of ordinary shares”.

    Section 9, clause 11 also makes it clear that “Management shares shall have the same par value as ordinary shares but shall not (a) be offered, before issue, to ordinary shareholders; or (b) be quoted or dealt on a stock exchange in Singapore or elsewhere. With so much voting power bestowed on the management shares holders, it becomes quite apparent that this Act is indeed a tool by the government to make it nearly impossible for the management of any local newspaper to fall into the hands of an independent party beyond their control.

    Although the Newspaper and Printing Presses Act might have served its purpose in the 70’s to aid in the nation building agenda, I have doubts as to whether such an Act should still be around today. And even if the government sees it mandatory to apply it to today’s media environment, is it not time to review it to render it less all-encompassing?

    The law, as it is, makes it difficult for anyone to start a newspaper. Nobody would want to start company knowing that he has to grant a 1% share to a government-appointed person to have a majority decision on directors and staff. In the last 18 months, Singapore Press Holdings and Media Corporation of Singapore have been granted licenses to launch their own broadcast channels and newspapers respectively. It does not make sense to have this Act still in place if the government genuinely intends to liberalize the media industry unless the move is merely cosmetic.

    What I mean by making the Act less encompassing is perhaps to review the types of publications where this Act can be applied. The four main language dailies and broadsheets like The Straits Times and Lianhe Zaobao should still be regulated under the Act due their high circulation. Tabloids such as The New Paper, Streats and Today can be partially excluded from some clauses in the Act or have the Act amended to facilitate non-government ownership of a non-broadsheet, or in this case, a tabloid in Singapore.

    Presently, the line between tabloid and broadsheets is very blurred. This is due to the omnipresent state control even in these so-called tabloids. Editors and journalists practice self-censorship because they know that the Prime Minister’s Office is just a phone call away when they notice something awry in what’s been published. I am not advocating The New Paper or Streats to be a local “Mirror” or “The Sun”. Relinquishing state control on tabloids would allow a more competitive print media environment for that free market of ideas to operate in. This step will therefore further the government’s intention to liberalize the local media industry. Foreign media companies should also be allowed to enter our media market as new players, either through mergers with these tabloids, ownership of shares in these non-government controlled publications or set up their own publications. However, to guard against what some MPs called “yellow culture” as a result of the liberalization, these new players should still be regulated by the laws of the land and other prevailing media laws like the Official Secrets Act, Undesirable Publication Act etc. The granting of licenses for such publications should still be mandatory through a statutory board and a quota must be established so as to prevent a scenario where there is a deluge of tabloids in the market.

    With a relaxation in the aforementioned law to free up the media industry, it is imperative to enact other laws like a Competition Act to discipline the media competition. In 2001, we had witnessed a minor media war with the unfavourable coverage of the Miss Singapore Universe pageants and Manchester United soccer matches in Singapore by either of the two media owners as a result of the “official broadcaster status”. With new players coming in, an unchecked media industry might cause some print media to, as MP Toh See Kiat put it, “cut close to the fringes of bad taste, murky morals and dodgy ethics”. In light of the media war last year, Singapore’s Deputy Prime Minister Brigadier-General Lee Hsien Loong told the Straits Times in May 2001 that a Competition Act was being studied by the Ministry of Trade and Industry.

    Australia makes a conscious effort to allow for the maximum number of players in every industry through an official body like the Australian Consumer and Competition Commission (ACCC). One of the enacted legislation is the cross-media ownership law where a major television owner or network cannot own newspapers in that city at the same time and vice versa. This is to prevent one media giant from dominating the flow of information within the industry through ownerships of multiple media. Prior to the days of Mediaworks and Today, what we had was an industry with SPH “ruling” the print medium and MediaCorp “ruling” the broadcast medium. It would appear that this is quite similar to what ACCC has in mind in terms of cross-media ownership law but we are forgetting that both media giants are still linked to the government. The new players running the tabloids etc, be it local or foreign, will need new laws like the Competition Act to regulate and ensure commercial fair play. Concurrently, we can learn from Australia and enact something similar to the cross-media ownership laws to prevent new players, particularly a major newspaper operator other than those under the arm of SPH, from owning a free-to-air broadcast network as well. As we have seen from the mutual cooperation between MediaCorp TV, MediaCorp Radio and Today, the effects of cross-media support is powerful. We need laws in place to limit the powers of big players.

    In the book “Media Enthralled”, it has been criticized that the People’s Action Party “ruthlessly and efficiently crushed the media knowing that “the hand that rules the press … rules the country”. Albeit a harsh comment, we cannot deny there is an element of truth in the statement. An authoritarian hold on the media does not work well for a country that speaks of liberalizing the media industry. It is also in conflict with the nation’s drive to become a regional hub or even a Renaissance City. What we need is a review of the Newspaper and Printing Presses Act to facilitate more players in the print industry. At the same time, the government will still run the different publications almagated under SPH to pursue its interests. But Singapore will need new laws to keep check of the new competitors within the industry to prevent the liberalization from spinning out of control.