Singapore should adopt press code like in Bosnia

December 8, 2005
Singapore Democrats

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Warren Eswaran
3 Jan 06

Warren Eswaran presenting Singapore's caseSingaporean activist Mr Warren Eswaran recently traveled to Bosnia to attend a seminar for young activists. The Singapore Democrats had nominated Mr Eswaran for the seminar, which took place in December 2005. The subject of study was freedom of speech and was organised by the Young Liberals of Bosnia & Herzegovina. Below is Mr Eswaran’s comments. (See also SDP activists attend free speech workshop in Sarajevo).

The seminar on Freedom of Speech in Sarajevo allowed me to meet different activists from all over the world and better understand the concept of free speech. Freedom of speech is an integral component in modern democracies.

I had the opportunity to meet many other activists from Europe who faced similar problems as in Singapore. One of the participants from the Party of Freedom & Progress in Belarus, had shared with me how he could face imprisonment if the authorities in his country found out that he was attending a seminar of such nature.

When people fear voicing criticism because of state retribution, governments are free to ignore the views of the people, making the ruling parties less accountable to the people. This is the main reason why governments suppress free speech – to avoid accountability.

Even Bosnia has a free press

Participants in the seminar had a rare opportunity to visit the premises of Oslobodjenje (which means Liberation in Bosnian), a newspaper company, and meet it’s chief editor, Ms Senka Kurtovic. Oslobodjenje is one of the only two independent newspapers in Bosnia.

Ms Kurtovic mentioned how the state-run publications try to undermine her integrity through baseless accusations and biased reporting. She also described what it was like to run the newspaper during the war period. Their 10-storey office building was reduced to rubble by artillery fire and five of their staff were killed. For the remainder of the war period, the staff worked from a basement bomb shelter meant for a shield against nuclear attack. She said with pride how her journalists risked their lives’ to bring the news to the people.

It was interesting to learn that Bosnia & Herzegovina, part of a former communist regime and a country which was at war just ten years ago is now a fast growing economy. Its citizens also enjoy far better democratic freedoms than Singaporeans.

Nevertheless, the newspaper business in Bosnia is still underdeveloped. The independent newspaper publications Oslobodjenje and Vecernje novine are flag bearers of a free press. This is partly due to the state control of the media in the past, and partly to the impoverished market and limited technical capability.

A press council for Singapore?

What I found interesting was a media group called the Press Council of Bosnia & Herzegovina. This organization functions to protect and maintain Press Code standards. The Press Code prescribes that it is the responsibility of journalists and editors to ensure that their work is accurate. It also ensures the public’s right to know the truth.

The Press Code also establishes the obligation of the media not to incite or inflame hatred, discrimination or intolerance. Among other things, it establishes the fundamental ethical principles of factual and fair reporting, distinguishing clearly between comment, conjecture and fact, protection of children and minors, protection of the accused, and the right of citizens to privacy.

Given the recent horrors of war and genocide in the country, it seems that the Press Code has an important role to play.

The Press Council observes the conduct of media and stipulates that only journalistic remedies such as right to reply, publishing of retraction, apology or denial can be used. It does not have authority to fine, suspend, close down or license newspapers and magazines. I couldn’t help but wonder why Singapore could not adopt a similar system. Not only would it allow alternative views and objective journalism but it would also keep check on the abuse of a free press, such as spouting hate speech.

Freedom of Speech is a fundamental right that is essential in the discovery of truth. Justice Oliver Wendell Holmes wrote that “the best test of truth is the power of the thought to get itself accepted in the competition of the market, and that truth is the only ground upon which their wishes safely can be carried out.” Abrams v. United States 250 U.S. 616(1919).

Bosnia is ranked 102th in the Freedom House 2005 report for global press freedom. Singapore is 140th.