It's About Politics Not Journalism

 

First published on publichouse.sg in July 2013

 

Since the Media Development Authority introduced their hugely unpopular licensing requirements for Singapore news websites on 1 June 2013, the government has been on the defensive. Most recently, Minister for Communications and Information Mr. Yaacob Ibrahim reiterated, rather unconvincingly, in Parliament the rationale behind this legislation.

 

But, he stressed, these licensing requirements simply bring parity between news websites and mainstream media by putting the two under the same regulatory framework. And, he reminded the House, all websites are already subjected to a class licence that contain content guidelines; the only difference between that and the new individual licence is the S$50,000 bond it requires and its power to demand websites take down content within 24 hours. This, he asserted, makes little difference to the type of content already permissible in Singapore, therefore doesn’t restrict online speech further and will help to maintain our high standard of journalism, which, he wanted to assure us, we hold dear. So, the Minister felt in bewilderment, what is all the fuss about?

 

Well, the regulatory framework that governs our media is not and has never been about upholding high standards of journalism. In fact, it’s been anything but. It’s always been about control—using the media as a compliant tool to push through the government’s policies and messages, and to uphold its politicians while waging war on its opponents. Countless examples through Singapore’s media history since the implementation of the repressive Newspaper and Printing Presses Act in 1974—the pillar of Singapore’s media regulations and death knell for a free press in Singapore—make this crystal clear.

 

While Mr Yaacob stayed well away from this, he is not pulling wool over anyone’s eyes. The pro-establishment, often slavish, content of our mainstream media speaks for itself, and most recently its singling out of bloggers who openly criticise the 

disseminate news as the party and its leaders instruct, or the press does not publish at all. It may seem fantastic that such a threat to freedom and liberty should confront Singapore in this day and age of political advance, but PAP’s leaders have made it quite clear that they do not understand the fundamental principles of the freedom of the press. …

 

Unmistakably PAP is hostile to a free press, to newspapers it cannot control.”

 

Unmistakably too, this is what the new licensing regime brings news websites on par with, not high standards of journalism.

 

Detailed accounts of how the government controls, manipulates and quashes the press for its own purpose have been explicitly documented in several books now, most notably the eye-opening tell-all memoirs of former Singapore Press Holdings editor-in-chief Cheong Yip Seng, OB Markers: My Straits Times Story, the brilliant and damning The Media Enthralled by Francis Seow, and the delicately balanced Freedom from the Press by Associate Professor Cherian George of Nanyang Technological University.

 

At no point is maintaining a high standard of journalism ever mentioned as being a concern or a priority for the Singapore government—and by ‘high standard’ we mean reporting the truth in all its aspects, on matters of public interest (which includes looking at authority with a critical eye) and upholding freedom of speech and information. In fact, this has been sneered at for being a Western liberal ideal incompatible with Singapore society and a threat.

 

The cornerstones for Singapore’s strangulating media laws were laid down decades ago. And as this new online licensing legislation and the government’s promised amendments to the Broadcasting Act next year, that are likely to control websites based outside of Singapore, show—nothing much has changed fundamentally. Perhaps Dr Yaacob, instead of parity, we need to be looking at progress.

 

government, like Andrew Loh and Ravi Philemon, plus its attacking the integrity of The Workers’ Party echo many similar incidences from the past. Singapore’s dismal ranking on the world’s Press Freedom Index—at no. 149 below Oman and the Democratic Republic of Congo—is so laughable, it would be a standing joke if it weren’t so serious.

 

The original arbiter of Singapore’s media laws, Lee Kwan Yew himself, made no bones about his intention behind these laws or about what he wanted the media in Singapore to be. As early as 1956, he said in a now infamous quote: “An intimidated press and the government-controlled radio together can regularly sing your praises, and slowly and steadily the people are made to forget the evil things that have already been done, or if these things are referred to again they’re conveniently distorted and distorted with impunity, because there will be no opposition to contradict.” Ironically, he was speaking then as an opposition politician.

 

Another irony is that The Straits Times of the day saw exactly this control of the press looming on the horizon, and spoke up strongly against it. In an eloquent editorial on 21 April 1959, entitled ‘Threat to Freedom’, an author wrote:

 

“Not for a hundred years has the freedom of the press in Singapore been in such danger as it is today. If the People’s Action Party is in a position to form a government, one of its first concerns will be to bring the newspapers to heel … If this conclusion is wrong, it is easy for PAP to say so. Its leaders need only affirm their respect for freedom of the press, their respect for the right to criticize, their respect indeed for the rights of all political opposition. …


It is ominous when, in an orgy of false witness by party leaders, that PAP believes in ‘objective reporting and the accurate dissemination of news.’ This has been the classic introduction to the repression of the press everywhere the press is in chains. Dictatorships, whether of the Left or the Right, begin their suppression of the truth by confining the press to what they call ‘the accurate dissemination of news.’ The papers then