Ms Melanie Alfred a mass communications undergraduate at RMIT recently interviewed Ravi Philemon, the interim chief editor of TOC. We reproduce here Ms Alfred's report from the interview.
“When you go to TOC (The Online Citizen), just be careful that that site is an anti-establishment site. So what you read discount by 90%.” This is Emeritus Senior Minister Goh Chok Tong’s stern warning to readers, published on The Online Citizen’s Facebook page as tongue-in-cheek description of itself.
As I sit in the empty conference room awaiting my interviewee, I think how fitting it is that the interim chief editor of TOC is also a community worker. When I was told that the meeting would be held in the chief editor’s office, I imagined an office building with all creature comforts provided for. I did not expect that Ravi Philemon worked with the very people that he sought to be a mouthpiece for in society.
The Who and Why Answered
When Ravi walks in, I am pleasantly surprised again. I had been expecting a hardened, jaded man who was tired of the system and now concentrated all his efforts on fighting back. Instead, a big-built, clean shaven and soft spoken man walks in. He greets me politely, offers me a drink and invites me into his office.
The Online Citizen, a popular socio-political blog, was started in December 2006 after the General Elections. TOC’s vision statement is to be the leading online source for socio-political news and views in Singapore. Their mission is to provide an online platform for Singaporeans to champion causes and values that promote justice, openness and inclusiveness.
Ravi sums this up as simply wanting to be the voice of the ordinary Singaporean. “We felt that there were a lot of ground sentiments that were not expressed in the mainstream media and the alternative voices were not given enough space,” he says when asked why TOC was started. With no professional qualifications in journalism, it was his love for writing that spurred Ravi to work on TOC.
‘Bunch of Bloggers’ Turned Political Association
TOC has had its share of the limelight since it was founded, more so in January this year when they received an email from the Prime Minister’s office, stating that they had to be gazetted as a political association. TOC was taken by surprise.
Many netizens felt that TOC should consider the request to be gazetted an honour. Perhaps the Government thought that TOC’s influence on the people was widespread and that they had plenty of support from the ground. TOC however, thought otherwise.
“I think it was the first time in the world ever that a bunch of bloggers are going to be gazetted as a political association. We don’t even have an office!” Ravi said humorously. “We were just a loose bunch of people, doing what we want to do, having fun out of it. Of course it was a shock.”
“It’s an Opposition Party! It’s a political activist group! No, it’s just a blog!”
Contrary to their final decision, Ravi said that their initial reaction was to close down TOC because they did not know what it all meant. They wanted to protect their writers and volunteers. Once they had gotten used to the idea that they were going to be on par with a political association such as an opposition party in Singapore, they discussed their options.
They could, like Sintercom, a website that sought to maintain an Internet home for Singaporeans to meet, shut down completely when they were asked to register as an internet content provider.
They could also close down TOC, with every writer and volunteer starting their own websites, a concept Ravi described as going hydra. “Like Medusa; when you cut off one head, two heads pop up.”
“Or the third option was to go into the ring and play the game that they want us to play, so to speak,” Ravi said in a matter-of-fact tone. This would mean that TOC would no longer be an entity on their own, but instead be controlled by the Government. In an ironic turn of events, they would have to adhere to the rules set by the very body that they were seeking to question.
After weighing everything very carefully, they chose to agree to the gazetting. “We felt that the only disadvantage of being gazetted as a political association is that our growth is hampered because we can’t ask foundations for donations,” Ravi explained.
Why the Call?
The request to be gazetted came very close to the General Elections held in May 2011. I asked Ravi the burning question, to me at least, of whether this was a move from the Government to ‘play the game’ themselves. He replied fairly, “I think the Prime Minister, even at the last National Day Rally, said that they will try and control the discourse online. So I think it’s the Government’s way of trying to control the discourse.”
Prime Minister Lee Hsien Loong’s exact words, derived from the transcript of this year’s Rally, were, “It (Operating in the space of digital media) is not easy because it (digital media) is anonymous, it is chaotic, it is unfiltered, unmoderated and so the medium lends itself to many negative views and ridiculous untruths, any number of them.”
He went on to add, “... if you just open at random, you will see them (untruths) and we have to do our best to counter this, to prevent untruths from circulating and being repeated five, 10, 20 times from leading people astray. After a while, you have heard it so often, you cannot remember where you saw it but you think that it must be true. But it is not.”
Another antecedent leading to the Prime Minister’s office requesting the gazetting of TOC could have been the Face-to-Face forum held in December 2010. The forum provided a stage for the political parties in Singapore to state their stands on different issues. “It definitely had a part”, Ravi said emphatically, adding with amusement, “Except for the PAP (People’s Action Party), everybody turned up.”
Operating mainly on a voluntary basis, TOC’s largest concern with being gazetted was the impact it would have on the speed of their growth. Under the Political Donations Act, they are not allowed to accept anonymous donations above a total amount of S$5,000. The names of individuals who donate above S$10,000 must also be listed in their annual donation report. Moreover, the Act states that they cannot accept any foreign donations.
That might not seem like a deterrent because, after all, TOC is a website. How much could it cost to keep a website up and running, you may ask. It does play a significant role in hindering TOC’s advancement in accordance with their vision of becoming the leading online source for socio-political news.
“For example, you can’t write to the Knight Foundation which is a US based journalist media foundation that gives grants for start-up media, you know,” Ravi says fervently. The Knight Foundation in the United States of America (USA) provides grants for ‘transformational ideas that promote quality journalism, advance media innovation, engage communities and foster the arts’.
“We can’t expect grants like $500,000 and go semi-professional. Do what you’re doing in a more professional way,” Ravi says, with a hint of regret. He adds with a laugh, “Unless we find a millionaire who’s a Singaporean who says he’s going to give us a million dollars to take up this venture and run with it!”
Anonymous No Longer
Being a political association requires TOC to name a President, a Treasurer, a Secretary, as well as all the editorial staff and administrators. This suggests that there might be a change in the types of issues that TOC comments on. To the contrary, Ravi confirmed that this aspect of being gazetted had not caused any change.
“Everybody knows who our writers are. We always write with our real names”, he states, leaving no room for doubt. TOC knows who their anonymous writers are, and would not publish an article from anybody who did not state their identity.
It was enlightening to learn that the Government does communicate and has formed a relationship of sorts with TOC. “They have always engaged us for coffee and they say, ‘Why are you writing like that?’“, Ravi chuckles. Of course, I wanted to know more about these elusive meetings but Ravi was tight-lipped about the issue.
The Economist had published an article on its blog about the gazetting. Entitled ‘A Chill in the Blogosphere, its message was clear – TOC would now have to think twice about the content it produces. More importantly, they will have to re-look the boundaries of controversial areas of discussion such as homelessness and income inequality. However, Singapore’s High Commissioner replied that neither TOC’s activities nor its freedom of expression would be impeded through the gazetting.
I was interested to know what TOC’s thoughts were on that. Ravi agreed with the High Commissioner without hesitation. “Of course our freedom to express ourselves is not hampered by the gazetting,” Ravi stated firmly. “But our ability to grow at a faster rate is.” Perhaps they have won the battle that means more to them.
My Side, Then Maybe Your Side
The crux of a fine reporter is his ability to remain objective and emotionally distanced from whatever he reports. Bill Kovach and Tom Rosenstiel, authors of ‘The Elements of Journalism’ put it this way: “The primary purpose of journalism is to provide citizens with the information they need to be free and self-governing”.
The Online Citizen however, openly admits that it is biased in the issues it reports. “I won’t hide the fact that we are biased,” says Ravi. “But we are biased because we see the unfairness and the injustice and you can’t tell a story without being biased.”
Ravi mentions that one of the reasons that they are biased is that they can only write and report from the people who engage them. By engage, he means those that communicate with TOC. Incidentally, the only people who engage them are the people from the Opposition parties, not the Government. “That’s the reason why we do what we do,” he ends.
Space for an Alternative
The mainstream media has received plenty of criticism that it is Government controlled and that they only report what they want the people to hear. The Online Citizen delves into issues that may be seen as unpopular. Homelessness and the difficulties of people with disabilities are just two among a spectrum of other socio-political issues that might be difficult to address in the mainstream media.
Dr. Tony Tan, presidential candidate, quoted Ravi recently in his opening speech at the Face to Face 2 forum conducted by TOC. Ravi said, “We should be critical but we should not be cynical”, perhaps summing up TOC succinctly.
Hope for Change
The Online Citizen began with the intention to be a loudspeaker for the voices that are not heard. It is Ravi’s view that the major print and broadcast media in Singapore tends to lean toward Government opinion. TOC is still in touch with its original objectives. Their tagline, ‘A Community of Singaporeans’ is meant to give the reader confidence that they are still for the ordinary Singaporean.
It is safe to say that accepting the gazetting has showed the people that they are still all for the man on the street. Though they might not be able to expand quite as quickly as they have planned, the support of the people that they speak for will have to be growth enough for now.
At first, it must have been a bitter pill to swallow, but the gazetting could have been a blessing in disguise. Ravi hopes to see TOC move from being an amateur blog to a semi-professional alternative media outfit in the future. Although being gazetted might have reduced their potential funding, there’s a silver lining, as there is to everything if you look hard enough. “I think the Prime Minister gave us more prominence. After the gazetting more people started to read TOC”, he says with a grin.