theonlinecitizen

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Does Singapore deserve its press freedom ranking?

Posted by theonlinecitizen on May 13, 2008

Terence Lee

In a 2008 survey by Freedom House, Singapore has shown no improvement in its freedom of the press, despite the maturing of online media as a medium to air alternative views.

The latest results reveal nothing new: much has already been said about the deplorable state of press freedom in Singapore, ranked a lowly 153rd out of 195 countries, sharing the same ranking as Iraq. The idea that Singapore is first-world in economic competitiveness but third-world in press freedom and civil liberties has already become an over-sung tune.

A check with Freedom House’s past survey results revealed that Singapore has not only been stagnating, but has in fact deteriorated in terms of press freedom, increasing from a score of 60 (the lower the score, the freer the press) in 1994 to 69 in 2008.

Singapore occupies the lower rungs with many third-world countries like Iraq and Afghanistan, and lags far behind many of her ASEAN neighbours like Indonesia (114th) and Malaysia (141st) as well.

While widely quoted in the media, this information has often been accepted without much scrutiny. This inevitably leads to the question: does Singapore really deserve such a ranking?

It is debatable whether this assessment accurately portrays the actual situation on the ground. While the survey appears to measure only “press freedom” in Singapore, it should more accurately be described as measuring “media freedom.” A look at the assessment methodology reveals that the evaluation criteria encompasses not just print but all of news media – from newspapers to television to the internet.

There is no doubt that Singapore is beset by laws that continue to hover ominously over the media. The Government continues to pull its strings: mostly dormant and behind the scenes, but still largely in control. Therefore, a widespread change in the media’s stance from compliance to self-assured independence is highly unlikely.

However, in spite of all the restrictions, journalism in Singapore has found a way to grow somewhat, riding on the wave of the Internet revolution. The journalism scene in Singapore today is certainly more vibrant than it was in 1994.

Competition

While The Straits Times’ bias has not changed much, much around it has changed. It faces more competition from TODAY, which promises “meaningful journalism” with a different perspective. While unable to deviate too far from the state’s dictum on the press, TODAY has offered a refreshing change of pace for press-weary Singaporeans with its more engaging writing style. Also, its commentaries on the Weekend Xtra edition also provides more diverse views that are much different from The Straits Times.

Furthermore, the Internet has forced the Government’s hand in allowing more deviant views to proliferate. It has realised that it cannot exert tight control over the Internet. As a result, opposition parties, bloggers, political activists and citizens have used the Internet to air their views and organise political activities. An example of the former would be Martyn See’s political films, some of which are banned in Singapore, but nevertheless still available on YouTube.

Growth impeded by state’s legislation

The end result? A more accurate picture of the general sentiment of Singaporeans, with the views in the mainstream media balanced out by those in alternative media. The effects of the Internet on the overall political sentiment of the populace are still unknown, however. Only in the next General Elections will we know whether a vocal and politically-active minority can influence the slumbering majority. By then, citizen journalism in Singapore would have matured some, and perhaps capture a wider audience.

The Government has promised changes to Internet regulations, and the blogosphere has responded by sending in its proposal. Any changes to legislation would be slow and steady, and this will be an issue of much interest to political watchers here. Nevertheless, the signs inevitably point towards more press freedom, but it will be a painstakingly-slow process.

However, true growth of journalism here is impeded by the state’s legislation. Unless the government introduces sweeping reforms to legislation like the Internal Security Act and the Newspaper and Printing Presses Act, don’t expect the state to rank any higher in next year’s edition of the survey.

Singapore and Iraq?

On the other hand, coming back to Singapore’s ranking in the Freedom House survey, it can also be argued that Singapore does not deserve to be ranked so lowly, with the same score as Iraq. Iraq seems to be in a worse situation – the nation remains an extremely dangerous place for journalists, and not just because it is a nation at war.

Besides laws limiting press freedom, Iraq has gone a step further by acting against the media. The Freedom House report mentions how “Sunni TV channels Al-Zaura and Salah al-Din, as well as the Dubai-based satellite channel Al-Sharqiya were closed down in late 2006 and early 2007 for airing footage of Iraqis protesting Saddam Hussein’s execution.” Furthermore, it was reported that “eleven employees of Wasan Media were arrested…for sharing video footage with Al-Jazeera of an interview with a woman who was allegedly raped by police.”

In the report, it was also mentioned that 42 journalists and media professionals were killed in 2007. Most of them were killed by insurgent groups and militias in Iraq. One example would be Sahar Hussein Ali al-Haydari, a female reporter who was shot down by 4 gunmen on June 7 from an Al-Qaeda affiliated group.

Surely a case can be made for Singapore here? While laws are in place to safeguard the state’s interests over freedom of speech, and heads of state have engaged in lawsuits against the International Herald Tribune and the Far Eastern Economic Review, no journalists have been known to be arrested or killed.

With that much said, perhaps we should not be too happy about the relative comfort that journalists here enjoy. The peace enjoyed here may not be a sign of health, but instead a deeper malaise.

As Frederick Douglass, an American statesman once said: “If there is no struggle, there is no progress. Those who profess to favour freedom, and deprecate agitation, are men who want crops without ploughing the ground, they want rain without thunder and lightning.

Read also Terence’s roundup of the new media scene in 2007:

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About the author: Terence Lee is a 1st year student at NTU School of Communication & Information. He is an aspiring journalist with an interest in public affairs and social issues. More of his works can be found in his blog at http://themadmadworld.blogspot.com.

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17 Responses to “Does Singapore deserve its press freedom ranking?”

  1. what I would like to see said

    An open conversation with public media with the 3 Mas Selamat investigators who came up with the COI report – as far as I am concerned, it was scripted by ISA staff – why were they not interviewed?

    An interview with family members of Mas Selamat and other 20+ muslim still detained in ISA. Was the threat real, or like Wong Kan Seng said, his immediate escape posed no immediate threat to the nation. If they are no threat, then the 20 + muslim should be released immediately.

    Not 17 years later like Said and Chia Thye Poh.

    If not, we are as good as Iraq gets!

    Of course, Mr Wang just made a discovery of how our ST covers its tracks – or tried to…

    http://mrwangsaysso.blogspot.com/2008/05/thank-you-for-reading-my-blog-aljunied.html

    For this alone, we deserve to be 195 out of 195….

  2. Robert HO said

    RH:
    1. My wife subscribes to, and spends a few minutes on the Straits Times every morning at breakfast. We also get TODAY free, both to our doorstep.

    2. 1 reason why TODAY is somewhat ‘better’ than the ST is ‘mechanical’, meaning that by circumstances, TODAY stories are shorter, usually much shorter than ST, AND THEREBY MORE TRUTHFUL SINCE LYING OR PAPAGANDISING REQUIRES SUBSTANTIAL VERBIAGE TO CLOTHE SUCH LIES OR SPIN IN LONG-WINDED SENTENCES, PARAGRAPHS AND OVERALL LENGTH.

    3. Do an experiment: Write a subtle lie or spin in a series of sentences, from very short to very long. You will find that the shorter, the more direct you have to be and this usually makes spin or lying harder than long sentences and overall length.

    4. This is 1 reason why I always write short, simple sentences. Brevity is not only the soul of wit, it is the spirit of Truth. Thus, every time you read a long story in the ST, beware. You are being taken for a ride, or at least, being subtly PAPagandised. Brainwashing always require substantial words, usually in longish sentences, several clauses, and overall length. Truth can always be stated simply, shortly. I will never win prizes for writing but few dispute my truths.

    5. Besides that Brevity, TODAY resonates more because it does have an editorial policy to be ‘different’ from ST and thus, automatically employ less PAPaganda since the ST is nothing but. TODAY’s brevity also resonates well with a readership that has less time, willing to spend less time, on newspapers.

    6. But online is where all our hopes and the Future, lie. There is a wonderful EGALITARIANISM in online. When you click on ANY online text page, it ALL opens up much the same way to occupy much the same ‘presence’ on your display screen. Thus, whether you have clicked on NYT or TOC, they look pretty EQUAL, from appearance, niceness of fonts and paragraphing, etc. Whereas in printed newspapers, the sub-editors control what you see, from font size of headlines to where in physical space any story is located. Thus, in printed media, the sub-editors control not only WHAT you read but even HOW you read them. Not so online. Online, all clicks are equal. All webpages open up pretty much same.

    7. Someday, perhaps a combination of cellphone technology, which has blanketed our entire islet with cellular signals, coupled with a cheap, very thin, display about the size of a large novel which we can pull from our pocket and maybe even unfold like paper, this paper-thin display will be able to download through cellular technology, all the online news we want to read, not only text and pictures, but also moving video. Then, printed newspapers will be well and truly dead. Long live ONLINE!

  3. Anonymous said

    Maybe.
    Like why some site does not cover SDP, NRP and NSP and cover WP/PAP etc in a non partisan way. So who knows,go figure.
    PS don’t be a well bottom frog. See TV3 , 8 channel(ba du kong jian) and some malaysia channel once in a while you will be shock at how their TV programmes(even indonesia ones) are much better than ours which are catering more and more to the PRC taste.Yuck Who want to watch China Dramas (ch8),popularity contest(a lot of PRC too) and bollywood(ch12 aka central) movies all the time.
    Solution Come Home to (youtube,WOW,rented HK drama and anywhere but ch 5 XP ) and I play WOW all thru tuesday so no mark lee for me too 😛

  4. Speranza Nuova said

    Rankings always make for interesting reading (and more webhits), but it is important to explore the criteria chosen by the designers.

    Some time ago, I performed an analysis of Reporters Sans Frontieres’ Press Freedom Rankings. [Part 1 & Part 2]

    Do you think the same questions would apply to Freedom House’s methodology?

    As you point out, a ranking system is called into question when countries that murder journalists are ranked in the same league as Singapore.

  5. The Editor said

    “Surely a case can be made for Singapore here? While laws are in place to safeguard the state’s interests over freedom of speech, and heads of state have engaged in lawsuits against the International Herald Tribune and the Far Eastern Economic Review, no journalists have been known to be arrested or killed.”

    No journalists need be arrested or killed since the PAP has its claws all over the mainstream press. Pro-PAP editors are there to filter out news that portray the Government in bad light.

    Just because control over the press in Singapore is not carried out with guns doesn’t mean it is any less insidious.

  6. Dear anonymous (5.45pm),

    I am not sure if you are referring to TOC when you said, “Like why some site does not cover SDP, NRP and NSP and cover WP/PAP etc in a non partisan way”, but here are the facts as far as TOC is concerned.

    We have covered SDP’s events more than any other parties. Here are the articles and reports:

    “The people look to us for leadership. Let us provide it.” – Dr Chee Soon Juan

    Freedom Walk

    Public Forum: Development of Democracy in Europe and Asia

    Packed audience at SDP forum

    TOC Breaking News: Police allow SDP march to Parliament

    Hong Lim Park protest – revisited

    TOC report: Public forum on ASEAN Human Rights Working Group

    TOC Report: Over 400 visit Burmese embassy to sign petition

    Chee Soon Juan’s ‘exploitation’ of the Burma situation?

    TOC Breaking News: 4 SDP members arrested outside Istana

    Something is Rotten in the State of Singapore

    Election reform effort needs everyone’s involvement – forum

    A CASE of double standards?

    Breaking News: Protesters arrested for World Consumer Rights Day event

    SDP’s May Day message

    A quick search by typing in “The Workers’ Party” or The National Solidarity Party” or any other parties in the “Search” feature will show you that TOC has covered the SDP more than any other party.

    Regards,
    Andrew Loh

  7. Jackson said

    Singapore should be ashamed of being first world in economy competitiveness yet third world press freedom. Main reason is because it is still the same old group of old people in control of the country, a modern type of imperialism, the Lee Dynasty. While it is understandable of the great things they’ve done more than 40yrs ago, now is 2008 for your information, a different generation of people has surfaced, therefore we need a new generation of leaders.

  8. Speranza Nuova said:

    “Do you think the same questions would apply to Freedom House’s methodology?”

    A look at the methodology indicates that prosecuting a journalist is not too different from murdering one. Both are weighed on a scale of 1-10, and the points contribute only a small part of the overall score. The survey is based on the political, economic, and legal environments of the country. It is therefore not surprising that Singapore has such a low ranking based on these criteria.

    The Editor said:
    “Just because control over the press in Singapore is not carried out with guns doesn’t mean it is any less insidious.”

    That was what I was emphasising in the last part of my article. While Arab journalists have to fight for their freedom to report, Singapore journalists have no such struggle. Rather, most seemed resigned to the current state of affairs in Singapore.

    Of course, that is just a guess. Who knows what could be brewing within the offices of SPH and TOday?

  9. Dinosaurs said

    Don’t worry too much about whether the MSM is 130th, 153th or
    159th. It is going the way of the dinosaurs in just another few
    more years. With the Internet, we need not depend on local
    newspapers, except maybe the advertisements on Saturdays.

    All other major newspapers the world over are shifting to blogging as their main focus, with the online news as backups in summaries or brief forms. Looking at the world trend in journalism and reporting, our local newsprints would have no choice but to follow suit or else they will be simply ignored.

    Just imagine writing and writing but nobody reading your news!

  10. Having quickly scanned the countries above and below Singapore, our placing appears about right. (no science, just rough anecdotal ‘feel’).

    Perhaps we should be asking not whether we deserve to be placed so low (we do), but whether Iraq deserves to be placed so high.

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  12. Agnes said

    I dispute your claim that journalists in Singapore have not been arrested or killed. The authors of the SDP newsletter, a printed newsletter and therefore part of the “press” in Singapore, have been arrested before and are now being sued for defamation. The authors of the SDP newsletter are journalists in a sense, given that they write opinion pieces and put pen to paper for distribution to the public. And these journalists are being arrested, tried, and bankrupted. Having the state seize all your money for something you write in a newsletter is a punishment just as serious as being imprisoned. “Journalists” that you may be thinking of (the propagandists working at the Straits Times) are not worthy of the title, and are more like copy editors meant to dress up government press releases in my opinion. But they undoubtedly notice when SDP newsletter writers are arrested and bankrupted, and take care that they don’t venture into the journalist category themselves, instead sticking to their cheerleading and spell-checking careers.

  13. By journalists, I mean it in the strictest sense where the writer attempts to be fair and balanced in presenting news. The SDP newsletter writers cannot be considered journalists, because what they write is obviously pro-SDP propaganda.

    I beg to differ that journalists in The Straits Times are not “worth the title”. By all means they should be considered journalists, just that they face legal and political constraints from the government. The journalists at ST are expected to be fair, accurate, and balanced in the reporting in spite of the constraints they face.

  14. sarek_home said

    Hi Agnes,

    This “journalists in Singapore have not been arrested or killed” is in the context of the individuals “arrested or killed” as the result of performing the work of a journalist. We should not count a journalist arrested as the result of a hit-n-run case as an example.

    Could you give instance of SDP authors arrested as a result of their SDP newsletter works so the readers can understand your point better?

    Yes, they are sued for defamation.

    Regards.

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