Tuesday, January 25, 2011

Criticisms to Singapore's Press

Wikileaks, the century's most groundbreaking breakthrough in investigative journalism is what real journalism is about. To bring light materials that governments would prefer to keep secret. Investigative journalism is dwindling in the face of commercialism where content creation is a money-losing business. To secure readerships and ad rates, articles are most likely to be placed by public relations personnels who understand the mechanics behind media placements. It is proven that 70% of newspapers articles are placed by PR representatives. Media agencies employ very few journalists who are actually on the run to sniff for news. These days, journalists normally report and interview over their phones from trusted sources and this is the strain between their code of ethnics and the PR practitioner's whose primary aim is to represent a positive image for their client in the media. The sad truth is in a commercial driven capitalistic society, media organisations are in intense pressure to be profit-orientated. Currently, the market is not yet welling to pay what it takes to sustain high quality journalism. After all it is a demand and supply equation.

Real journalism is about reporting what the society is and not what the society should be.

Criticism #1: Journalism education
Criticism #2: Singapore Press Holdings is governed under the Newspaper and Printing Presses Act
Criticism #3: In a democracy, the 'Four Estates' are crucial to keep each other power check in balance but this is missing in Singapore.

Criticism #4: Strict defamation and libel charges by the judicial system: Singapore Broadcasting Act, Penal Code and Sedition Act.

Criticism #1:
Journalism education

However, as I was reading through Cherian George's Reflections on journalism education at the Wee Kim Wee School (NTU, Singapore), I was dismayed at their approach in teaching budding journalists. Firstly, in order to enable students to 'plug and play' as soon as they graduate, the university has to hot-house students in the ways of 'real world' journalism. In this case, it would be symbiotically related to what the local media demand is, Singapore Press Holdings has close ties with the government while Mediacorp is under government's owned Temasek Holdings. Naturally in response to the biggest employers of prospective graduates, the university has to develop an education in serving the public's need to be socially responsible and publicly accountable of their reports. In particular, sensitive topics such as race, regional relations and government politics. In a way, the university has inculcated a pool of journalists to adopt similar ideologies SPH and Mediacorp would like them to think. Is this not a way to further entrench and perpetuate dominant ideologies right from the beginning?

Secondly, from a normative perspective, 'a university has the social responsibility to educate for the world as it should be, and not just for the world as it is'. (George 2009, p. 2). May I question why then do we exercise journalism, if not to reveal truths, informing the public for a general good? Wikileaks is serving the public a general good by empowering people to be endowed with an informed knowledge for making a wiser decision, be it in politics, economics, religion or current affairs. Ignorance is not bliss and people operate on the prism of what they know. It is only ethnically right for media to carry the responsibility to inform the public of important issues that affect their lives although however, indirectly. The media is society's most important 'storyteller' and shapes the basis of people's opinions and political beliefs and attitudes. For example, Rupert Murdoch's Fox News is a highly biased sensationalistic channel that is almost regarded synonymously to being a right-wing propaganda machine. Most recently (21 Dec 2010 on News Hound), Fox News's Jon Voight has a capability to portray President Obama in the light of being a big national security threat to America should the START treaty pulls through. Of cause, Fox News are on the side of the Republicans as it has always been. It was reported that more than 60% of Americans who constantly watch Fox News believed that the Iraq war was good. Fox News is a strong political device to influence political opinions in America so as other media outlets , such as Singapore Press Holdings (SPH) and Mediacorp as the main media channels in Singapore.
Criticism #2:
Singapore Press Holdings is governed under the Newspaper and Printing Presses Act

When SPH subscribes to the Newspaper and Printing Presses Act, it means four important things:

1. Licensing:
No newspapers are to be printed or published without a permit. This permit is dependent on the Minister's discretion to grant (or subject to conditions to be endorsed thereon), refuse or revoke. A permit usually has to be renewed on a yearly basis.

2. Management shares:

There are only two types of shares: management and ordinary shares. It is important to note that management shares are only subject to the approval of the government. Management shareholders have 200 times more voting rights than ordinary shareholders with regards to 'the appointment or dismissal of a director or any member of the staff of a newspaper company'. This, in effect gives government nominees control over the so-called top management of a newspaper company.

Ordinary shareholders were, from 1977, limited to a 3% stake, This was to prevent the rise of, to borrow Lee Kuan Yew's words, any 'wealthy press baron' who might inject his political beliefs or agenda into a newspaper.'

The NPPA acts as subtle device to disguise behind the frames of a possessive government in complete ownership. Instead, under NPPA, it now can be seen as a calibrated coercion, yet by no means less powerful means of control. It is a very wise method to remain politically neutral so that the newspaper's pragmatic interests is in line with the interests of the government.

3. No foreign ownership:

Given the historical antagonism between foreign-owned/ controlled press and the PAP, foreign ownership is despised for their lack of obligation to adhere to social responsibility and sensitivity to the distinct needs of Singapore being in the Asian region and its multicultural context.

4. Regulates foreign publications

In Article 24 (1), the Minister may declare any newspaper published outside Singapore to be 'engaging in the domestic politics of Singapore'. In this case, the circulation of foreign publications can be restricted. For example, the Asian Wall Street Journal, Far Eastern Economic Review (both now defunct), Time, Newsweek and The Economist have being ceased in Singapore for being critical of its politics.

In 1988, a controversial practice of 'gazetting' took place. The Economist even said in its journal that gazetting 'makes nonsense of Singapore's ambition to a regional information centre'.

Although the NPPA was amended to allow the sale of foreign gazetted journals, it has to be sold for no profit, meaning advertisements were to be blacked out. The aim of this was to prove that foreign publications 'are not champions of freedom of information that they claim to be' and that they are actually profit-orientated. All these did not paint a good light for Singapore's image.

With the NPPA, SPH is literally a mouthpiece for the PAP government.

Criticism #3:
In a democracy, the 'Four Estates' are crucial to keep each other power check in balance but this is missing in Singapore.

'The government wants journalists who work for the public good and understand national interests. The government mandated role for the Singapore press is to act as neither a 'Fourth Estate' nor government propagandists, but somewhere in between. It expects journalism education to operate within these parameters.' (George 2009, p. 7)

In a democracy, the 'Four Estates' have to be in place to keep each other power check in balance. The 'Four Estates' being the jurisdiction, government, opposition and media needs to remain as independent as possible of each other. However, in Singapore, the government, jurisdiction and the media are extremely bonded to almost function as one (in a unison voice).

Heavy censorship in the media is placed by the government, such as regulation by the Media Development of Authority which is a statutory board of the government under the Ministry of Information, Communication and the Arts (MICA).

Criticism #4:
Strict defamation and libel charges by the judicial system: Singapore Broadcasting Act, Penal Code and Sedition Act.

'Having successfully dragged the local media through obedience school, the Singapore Government started work on the foreign press. One by one, regional and international publications which commented unfavourably on the PAP and its politics were taken to court in expensive defamation suits or were criminally prosecuted. Asiaweek, Far Eastern Economic Review (both now defunct), Asian Wall Street Journal, Time , International Herald Tribune, The Economist and Newsweek all met with such fate.' (SDP 2010)

Singapore Broadcasting Act enables it to prosecute any foreign broadcasters, as it does with international press, for 'engaging in the domestic politics of Singapore'. Foreign correspondents as such are particularly sensitive and careful about their reporting on Singapore's public affairs.

These actions made by the government has resulted in criticisms from international media watch groups.

The Committee to Protect Journalists wrote:

'State control of the media in Singapore is so complete that few dare to challenge the system and there is no longer much need to arrest or even harass journalists. Even foreign correspondents have learned to be cautious when reporting on Singapore, since the government has frequently hauled the international press into court to face lengthy and expensive libel suits.'

Reporters Without Borders (RWB) gave the former prime minister, Goh Chok Tong, the 'Predator of Press Freedom' award for his role in the government's continued suppression of press freedom altogether, with the likes of Muammar Gaddafi, Robert Mugabe, Kim Jong-II and Fidel Castro.
Here, I express my disagreement to the many political, social and journalistic restrictions that hinders the maturing of Singapore into a fully open society, especially if it intends to be an information hub of the region offering a first-class journalism education. With Singaporeans getting increasingly educated, democracy and liberation is only charging forward. This can be witnessed in the rise of user-generated content (UGC) in the age where social media is becoming a defining point for democracy. Alongside with the contrasting characteristics of Gen Y audiences who are active consumers of media rather than the baby boomers generation of passive TV viewers. The gratification theory model by Bulmer and Katz assumes that the Gen Y audience are active participants who like integrating their opinions and be involved in media productions. This is why social media like Facebook, YouTube and reality-TV formats are the defining times in today's media in disseminating information. Social media is more about sociology and anthropology than it is about technology. There is a change in the characteristics of audience demographics.

The internet has become an agent of change for democracy. New media coverage has help liberated freedom of speech by bypassing state laws and overcoming suppressed press freedom. A classic example in modern history is the importance of social networking in Iranian President post-election protests where it has given a voice to ordinary Iranians to the world. During the post-election protest fervour, international journalists were barred by the Iranian government in an attempt to suppress coverage. The only means of keeping up to date were news sources derived from citizen journalism. This is a historical moment where millions of people took to the streets, protesting against rigged polls. The protest turmoil was larger than the 1979 Revolution yet journalists were not allowed to cover. It could have been swept under bureaucratic manipulation if not for social networking sites. Twitter feeds, not only served as a vehicle of message, representing immediate situations but offered a broader context, when coupled with hyperlinks to photos in flickr, videos in YouTube, RSS in blogs and updates in facebook. Verified by news agents (e.g. Huffingtonpost), these news sources were then used in international news sites such as CNN and FOX. This new wave of citizen journalism has spurred a social networking revolution not only changing traditional news media for the first time, it is also igniting a democracy revolution. In a regime, so oppressive, it is no longer relevant in a society accentuated by more than half of its population under the age of 25, a Gen. Y demographic. The Internet, thus enabled Iranians to document and disseminate to the world, images and information they otherwise would not be able to. The social web has removed the gatekeepers of an industry that was notoriously hard to penetrate and build a name in.

Using Iran as an archetype for its social media revolution in pushing democracy on further frontiers, Singapore needs to recognise the nature of a changing media landscape and consumers' habits. Although social media entails a range of dissonance to traditional news media models, media organisations need to embrace the change rather than suppressing its existence. New media allows individuals to assert themselves more powerfully in the political sphere (under media in the 'Four Estates') and push democratic agendas forward.

'On January 21 last year, Hilary Clinton, US secretary of state, made a landmark speech about Internet freedom in Washington DC which many observers interpreted as a rebuke to China for its alleged cyberattack on Google.
"Information has never been so free", declared Mrs Clinton. "Even in authoritarian countries, information networks are helping people discover new facts and making governments more accountable."
She went on to relate how, during his visit to China in November 2009, Barack Obama had "defended the right of people to freely access information, and said that the more freely information flows, the stronger societies become. He spoke about how access to information helps citizens to hold their governments accountable, generates new ideas, and encourages creativity.' (Naughton, J. 2010, 'The Wikileaks wake up call', Al Jazeera, 7 December)

While I understand the sensitiveness of reporting stories about interracial and inter-religious topics, the draconian laws are effective back then when riots could soar by the harsh strokes of liberal journalism, affecting our political stability. But, may I propose that in light of technological and cultural advancements and being under such an impression of a stable political climate, more transparency and loosening of jurisdiction laws on press freedom is fundamental in stimulating the full maturing of a highly globalised society.

We need to acknowledge the reasons to much dissents from international media organisations and make a positive change to our public image. On April 29th 2010, United Nations official Githu Muigai criticised Singapore's limits on free speech. 'It is absolutely necessary in a free society that restrictions on public debate or discourse and the protection of racial harmony are not implemented at the detriment of fundamental human rights, such as the freedom of expression and the freedom of assembly' said the UN's Special Rapporteur on Contemporary Forms of Racism, Racial Discrimination Xenophobia and Related Intolerance.

The Penal Code and Sedition Act in Singapore's laws may not be as useful today was it was forty-five years ago. There is a pressing need to revise such laws and policies in opening up public discussions and discourses.

Race, language and religion will always be sensitive issues in Singapore but this does not mean that it should not be discussed. A balance between free expression and preservation of racial and religious harmony can be achieved as it has been achieved in other more diverse communities in the world with more press freedom. A recent Democracy index compiled by the Economist Intelligence Unit (EIU) shows that Singapore scores 2.78 out of 10 in the category of 'political participation' and under a hybrid regime instead of a full democracy. Even if we take journalism out of the Asian context calling for a heighten sensitivity as liberal democracy is incompatible with 'Asian values', South Korea and Japan both ranked much higher than Singapore, at 20th and 22nd respectively.

It is high time that we should liberalize the media landscape of Singapore and dispel some of the thick myths and truths about our autocratic regime spreading internationally.