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Index on Censorship
Ben Bland is the latest journalist to be barred from working in Singapore. Here, he explains the city state’s stranglehold on free expression
When Reporters without Borders released its annual press freedom index last month, the Singapore government was not best pleased to find the city-state ranked 133rd out of 175 countries, below the likes of Kenya and Congo.
Singapore’s law minister, K Shanmugam, dismissed the low ranking as “quite absurd and divorced from reality”, insisting to a group of visiting American lawyers that Singapore is not “a repressive state” and does not “unfairly target the press”.
“Our approach on press reporting is simple: The press can criticise us, our policies. We do not seek to condemn that,” he said.
While reading his comments in the state-controlled Straits Times newspaper, I was busy packing my suitcase as I’d recently found out that I had become “the latest on a long list of foreign journalists who have been targeted by the government for their news coverage”, in the words of the Committee to Protect Journalists.
After a year as a freelance journalist in Singapore, contributing to publications such as The Economist, the Daily Telegraph and the British Medical Journal, my application to renew my work visa was rejected without warning, explanation or right of appeal.
The law minister’s comments might have appeared hypocritical to most people but if I had written as much while still in Singapore, I would have landed myself with a ruinous defamation suit.
As well as forcing out foreign correspondents, destroying the careers of local journalists and maintaining ownership over all the domestic newspapers and news broadcasters, the Singapore government is fond of using its stringent libel laws to further restrict the freedom of the press.
Two weeks ago, the soon-to-close Far Eastern Economic Review was forced to pay S$405,000 (£177,000) in damages and costs to the prime minister, Lee Hsien Loong, and his father, Singapore’s founding father, Lee Kuan Yew, after being found guilty of defaming the Lees in a 2006 article based on an interview with Chee Soon Juan, an opposition politician.
Rupert Murdoch’s Dow Jones, which owns the publication, denied any wrongdoing but said it was paying up to avoid a protracted legal battle.
Dow Jones, which has chosen to locate the Southeast Asian headquarters of its newswire division in the tightly-controlled city-state, said that the ruling would not deter it from its core mission “to provide fair and timely reporting and commentary on matters of importance from around the world, including in Singapore”.
However, most working journalists in Singapore agree that the government’s persistent use of libel suits against global news organisations such as The Economist, the International Herald Tribune, the Wall Street Journal and Bloomberg has had a chilling effect on press freedom.
Such a heavy-handed approach may mean that the government loses the battle in the short term, coming under fire for showing such intolerance toward mild criticism from reputable publications.
However, the government has won the war because international news organisations have, by and large, been silenced by the threat of having to pay substantial damages or having their access to the lucrative Singapore market curtailed.
Stories that quote an opposition politician or civil society expert are few and far between, while hard-hitting investigative journalism is virtually non-existent.
The real victims of this repression are not foreign correspondents like myself, who can re-locate, or large news organisations such as Dow Jones, which can afford to bear the costs of an occasional libel suit, but Singaporeans.
For the inevitable result of the government’s regular attacks on the foreign press and its exercise of direct control over the domestic media is that a corrosive atmosphere of self-censorship is all-pervasive.
In researching this story, I spoke to many Singaporean and foreign journalists, trying to find someone who had a more positive view of the government’s approach to the press. But even those who support some of the government’s restrictions were not willing to comment on the record for fear of somehow upsetting the powers-that-be and jeopardising their livelihood.
Although I wrote about some sensitive topics in Singapore such as rising crime and the challenges of an ageing population, I always believed that I was operating within the bounds of what was acceptable.
However, the ruling People’s Action Party, which has maintained a vice-like grip on power since independence from Britain in 1959, deliberately refuses to clarify what journalists can and cannot write about.
By keeping the boundaries of what is permissible opaque, the government ensures that most journalists and other commentators err on the side of caution — especially Singaporeans, who have much more to lose than their foreign counterparts if they fall foul of the authorities.
This self-censorship is, in the words of Milos Forman, the Czech film director who lived under the yoke of the Nazis and the Communists, “the worst evil…because that twists spines, that destroys my character because I have to think something else and say something else, I have to always control myself.”
Ben Bland is a freelance journalist. He was based in Singapore between October 2008 and October 2009. He blogs at http://www.asiancorrespondent.com/the-asia-file