By Howard Lee
The Singapore's government continued intent to regulate and censor media will become its liability, said Dr Cherian George, academic and editor of Media Asia at a dialogue to commemorate World Press Freedom Day on 3 May, Saturday.
Speaking to about 50 international journalists, bloggers, civil society advocates, academia and media observers, Dr George reiterated his views published in his article, which pressed that censorship – or more accurately, an “institutionalised system of self-censorship” propagated by tight media controls – has “allowed the government to remain in denial”, which then becomes detrimental to policy making.
Dr George described three ways by which such a system was established - the discretion of the executive branch of the government to allow newspapers to operate; the appointment of chief editors by the government; and punitive laws against the insult of the government and officials. We expressed concerns that such regulations would also affect online media, with the upcoming revisions to the Broadcasting Act.
“By allowing government to operate in an echo chamber, the media gave yesterday’s policy makers an easier ride. But today’s policy makers are paying the price. There is now more for them to undo as they move their frame of reference back to the centre-left.”
Dr George cited issues like ministerial salaries and healthcare costs, where journalists were fully aware of the unease among citizens, but did not report on ground sentiments. Instead, the media was told to kept such public grievances “toned down and set in a context that ensured that the government’s voice remained dominant”.
Being oblivious to the truth effectively blunted the government's ability to response to the people, and resulted in lower levels of trust among the people, which then makes it harder for the government to convince citizens about its new policies.
Dr George cited the government's failure to convince the people about the Population White Paper, arguably its most important policy document to date, as an example of how losing touch with the ground, through a docile media, has became a liability for the government.
“Because it had been unwilling to subject its immigration policies to even the gentle probing of friendly national media in the past, it lost touch with public sentiment and lost precious political capital. Today, it is unable to carry the ground on immigration issues.”
Responding to queries from participants, Dr George indicated that he did not think the Singapore government is a corrupt regime that has skeletons in its closet, and a more healthy debate on issues can only make it look and do better.
Yet, this reluctance to free up the media was likely due to, he believed, “conflict between the individual interest of officials, versus what is in the long term interest of the government – that it is simply too inconvenient to subject oneself to what is seen as the “irrational” scrutiny of bloggers and trouble-making journalists.”
“It is simply more convenient and makes their job easier to continue with the status quo.”
Nevertheless, his exchanges with supporters of the ruling party suggested that it is in the government's own interest to free up the media “before its back is to the wall, to free up on its own terms when it is still in a position of strength, rather than when it is forced to.”
The development of media in the region and the online media space
Other speakers at the dialogue, organised by the Asian Media Information and Communication Centre and supported by the American Embassy, also touched on the evolving state of media in the region, particularly in relation to online media.
Ms V Gayathry, executive director of the South East Asia Press Alliance, noted that as a region, South East Asia has too many advocates, particularly within government, who believe in limiting freedom of the press “in the interest of multi-racial, multi-lingual, multi-religious societies; and often, it is the control of media that make such tensions even worse.”
In particular, Ms Gayathry also cited ASEAN's lack of support for the universality of human rights, which limited the cross-border exchange of information, suggesting that regional governments are particularly wary of online media.
She also noted that the increased occurrence of elections in the region had a profound impact on media, and not always in a positive way.
“An election is the point that exposes the cracks in the media, or (rather) the rights and freedoms in media and civil society. When you have electoral reporting, these cracks begin to appear.”
Ms Gayathry was concerned about the inability of media to remain above the issues. “Even in countries where the media was relatively freer, they were caught in the this battle between sides. They became a participant as well... They have gone inside the conflict.”
While media in different countries respond differently to their political situation – some succumb to political pressure while others align with economic interests – the concern was in how this affects journalism standards.
“To some extent, we can say that it is okay to have partisan media, if you feel that it is the right political direction. But when you move from partisan media to publishing lies, then the problem has become much more serious.”
Mr Michael Vatikiotis, Asia Director for the Centre for Humanitarian Dialogue and former editor of the Far Eastern Economic Review, also raised concerns about what he felt was a degradation of the profession of journalism, which he felt was further exacerbated by the use of social media.
“Many journalists have become the participants of the events they cover. As a result, they are doing more persuading than informing,” he said.
Mr Vatikiotis believed that this was due to the financial limitations that news organisations face today, which prevents them from enforcing strict guidelines of objectivity, hence “forcing its members into – for lack of a better word – prostitution.”
This has effectively encouraged news agencies to out-source the news-gathering effort of citizen journalists, where there are now more voices contributing to news-making.
While this is fundamentally not wrong, Mr Vatikiotis raised concerns about how such activities confers “a measure of status and power” to the bloggers covering and participating in the events. However, readers might not be cognisant of the slant that a blogger provides, and could be less well-informed as a result.
He also raised concerns about who sponsors citizen journalism. “Unpaid bloggers thrive in periods of intense political crisis, but so do the spin doctors, in search of tools of deception.”
Mr Vatikiotis opined that while journalists have traditional been prone to influence, editorial safeguards and financial security allows them to “fend off offers to write for hire”. While stressing that it is important for a news outfit to institutionalise such standards and provide financial security for journalists, he acknowledged that such a landscape is changing.
“In the absence of institutionalised professional journalists working for solidly financed media institutions, it would be those who hold power through more organised means, rather than what used to be known as the Fourth Estate.”