By Choo Zheng Xi
Reuters, when reporting on the Li Hong Yi saga, credited the blogosphere’s work in publicizing the issue:
“Li's letter -- totaling 2,000 words according to the Today newspaper -- has been posted online by several Singapore blogs, which have emerged as an alternative source of information for the city-state's Internet-savvy population, over pro-government newspapers.”
Public interest in the Li Hong Yi issue brought site counts to unprecedented peaks. TOC itself received over 2200 hits in half a day of the email being published in full on the internet. The last time TOC experienced such a spike in readership was after we published the full 47 page Auditor General’s report last month.
It is undeniable that the blogosphere has played a significant role in drawing attention to the recent brouhaha over Li Hong Yi’s email gaffe. It is also obvious that the public is hungry for information that the mainstream media (MSM) can only touch the tip of the iceberg on.
The question is, where does the blogosphere go from here?
Blogosphere coverage: Courage tempered with caution
The initial reaction from the blogosphere was muted and shrouded in aliases and self censorship: the thread on the Hong Yi email was peppered with cautious references to the Internal Security Department and the Military Security Department. The thread on the Hardware Zone Forum was eventually removed.
This caution is understandable: negative portrayal of the Lee family is playing hopscotch in a defamation minefield. Further, anyone familiar with SAF or civil service procedure will know that any SAF documents, regardless of their mundanity, are classified Confidential.
The issue then came to the fore when Lim Yee Hung, an intern working with SPH, published a piece on his own blog that would certainly never see the light of day in an SPH newsroom. In it, he decried the self censorship and paranoia of those who sought to drop the issue or warn others into silence. His plea to bloggers to shrug off the self- censorship that the MSM routinely practices was moving in its brevity: ‘It shouldn't be this way’.
That seemed to have been the proverbial kick in the butt bloggers needed to write about the issue: in half a day, almost a dozen blogs took the issue up. Some were critical of Li Hong Yi’s arrogance, comparing him to Wee Shu Min. However, a larger number gave credit to him for blowing the whistle on his superiors’ cover-up. TOC counted 9 supportive posts compared to 3 overtly critical ones.
This incident puts paid to several myths about the blogosphere’s credibility: that it is instinctively critical of the government, and that it doesn’t bother to check its facts.
Surveying the blogosphere’s process of news digestion, a very healthy dynamic emerges: initial skepticism about the veracity and legality of running an article gives way to the dynamism of individual efforts to chase a story of interest. Viral dissemination of the story then occurs, followed by an eventual publication of a polarity of views on the news in question, coupled with primary sources for verification.
While this is the same news digestive tract any healthy paper should cultivate, the MSM is hobbled by its overwhelmingly pro government editorial team. More practically, it cannot afford to run primary sources of information such as a 2000 page email, leaving the public to trawl the web for them.
The blogosphere, unhindered by editorial oversight or space constraints, has a vastly greater potential to generate edgy news tidbits, and then clarify and solidify them as more information emerges.
The way forward
Before one is tempted to draw triumphant parallels to Watergate, we need to recognize the limitations of what Singaporean bloggers can do. Many local bloggers have day jobs or are still studying, making them unable to do the hardcore muckraking professional journalism demands.
The quality of local newsblogging suffers from the practical limitation of not being able to do it as a full time job: no one has yet tried to run a commercially viable online news site in Singapore the way Malaysiakini has. As the critical mass of blog readers continues to grow, perhaps a group of bloggers will one day see a point in creating a viable Singaporean version of Malaysiakini.
For the time being, bloggers can draw important parallels between Hong Yi’s willingness to blow the whistle on his superior’s coverup with our initial fear of publishing details of the story.
While drawing from him the admirable example of speaking truth to power, we should also harness our more rational fears in a constructive fashion, tempering rasher instincts with solid investigation and contextualization.
The Blogosphere’s next challenge
Will this incident eventually be spun by the MSM into a parable for the younger Lee’s moral courage? Perhaps this will be interpreted as MINDEF’s shining example of how no one, not even the PM’s son, is above the law? Prepare for a handful of letters to the press and editorials attempting to characterize the issue as such.
For writers and readers of the local blogs: if this incident should be remembered, let it be remembered as yet another landmark in our maturation process. Let us remember to rigorously verify facts despite smelling blood over the whiff of sensationalism, and continue to harvest credibility through rational and substantial opinions.
Above all, let this incident be remembered for the courage of the bloggers who believed that an email of the PM’s son was not above disclosure and discussion.
The power of the blogosphere and the ensuing burden by HUNGonline
Li Hong Yi’s case: Bloggers force officials’ hand this time but… by Journalism.sg
(If any of the following attributations mischaracterize the stands taken in your articles, or you would like to be added to the list of attributed blogs, please drop us an email at [email protected])
First forum to take up the issue (later deleted)
First blogger to post about the issue (blog post has since been deleted)
Lim Yee Hung
First blog to carry the full email:
The following sites carried articles that were critical of a climate of self censorship (MSM, government, civil service, or blogosphere)
The following sites carried articles that were largely critical of Li Hong Yi:
The following sites carried articles that were largely supportive of Li Hong Yi:
The following site was largely neutral on Li Hong Yi