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Free press vital to S’pore’s survival

Does Singapore’s press measure up? Is it the voice of the people? Does it champion the people's rights? Does it ask the questions that need to be asked? Does it examine public policies and issues critically?

By Lee Weijia

This article is in reference to the report Press freedom a double-edge (sic) sword” in the April 5 copy of Weekend TODAY.

This report on Ms Anson Chan's interview with Weekend Today only served to show once again the sad state of our local press, albeit by implication.

Chan is Hong Kong's most famous female legislator and has held the second-highest governmental position as the head of the Civil Service. Despite being a high-ranking official in the Hong Kong government, Chan has publicly expressed views different from the previous Chief Executive of Hong Kong, Mr Tung Chee Hwa. This has earned her the reputation of being “Hong Kong's Conscience”. She is an active supporter of democracy and a fervent defender of press freedom.

During the hour-long interview, she expressed her views on press freedom, including the importance of up-to-date, accurate and timely information. She also stated that the media plays an important role as a protector of public interest and as the voice of the ordinary citizen. This is something that I am sure we all agree with.

The press has an important role in “keeping both politicians and the community at large honest, by constantly pushing for greater transparency and accountability in the conduct of public affairs and by exposing, when necessary, injustice, abuse of power and corruption,” said Chan.

Examining our local press

How then, does our own press measure up? Is it the voice of the people? Does it champion the people's rights? Does it ask the questions that need to be asked? Does it examine public policies and issues critically? From selective and inadequate reporting during GE 2006 to the ministers’ pay rise, to the issue of inflation to Mas Selamat's escape, our newspapers have shown the nation that they are adept at trumpeting the good and hushing up the bad.

But perhaps we should be less quick to put the blame on the press. Could it be that we, the public, do not actually deserve critical reporting? Mr P N Balji, Mediacorp's editorial director, asked rhetorically:

“Ideally, the public should be putting the pressure on the media, but do we have a perceptive and sophisticated community generally who can tell the difference between good and not-so-good journalism?”

Balji may be implying that we are an imperceptive and unsophisticated community and we deserve what we get since we continue to stomach the pre-digested news spouting from the maws of our newspapers.

Our own shortcomings aside, it is such thinking by the high-ranking managers of Singapore's media companies that prompts them to continue to dance and sing to the Government's tune, fuelled by their conviction that the citizens of Singapore are too stupid and that our government knows best.

In addition, section 10(2) of the Newspaper and Printing Presses Act gives the Government control of the management shares and allows the Government control of the board of directors of every newspaper company in Singapore.

(Section 10(11) gives every management share 200 votes as compared to an ordinary share when it comes to any resolution relating to the appointment or dismissal of a director.)

Is it then not crystal clear why and how our local press produces one-sided news?

The reason behind the state of our press

There appears to be two main reasons for the Government’s control of the newspapers. First, the Government wants to ensure the media remains sensitive to national interests and protects racial and religious harmony. Second, it sees the media playing a complementary, rather than adversarial role to the Government, where the former explains the latter’s decisions and policies to the people.

While this has its merits and can be lauded for helping Singapore achieve what it has today, this system of operation has become warped; instead of working as partners, the press has internalised the idea that it must look to the Government for directions, while the Government has come to take it for granted that the press is the Government's voice.

The press has simply become another branch of the Government.

This is a disgrace to the whole idea of press freedom and is no longer tenable in today's society where the citizens are increasingly disillusioned by the lack of critical analysis and reporting in the news. The pointed questions over the Government Investment Corporation’s investments, the grossly-inaccurate Budget forecast and Mas Selamat’s escape that begged to be asked were repeatedly glossed over. The press is increasingly used to discourage investigation into Government activities. Unfortunately, the people are not as stupid and gullible as the press would have you believe.

There are no good reasons why the Government should continue to hold the press on a short leash. While the newspapers should be sensitive of religious and racial issues, there are other ways to ensure this other than through Government control. Any respectable paper will have this in mind.

With regards to the newspapers being the voice of the Government, it should be clear that this is a lose-lose proposition when the Internet is a ready source of alternate information – both the government and the press loses credibility; the former for not having enough faith in the people’s ability to discern the merits of policies, and the latter for not being neutral, as the press ought to be. For the benefit of the nation, the newspapers should be given free rein in their reporting. This will encourage the Government to act with greater responsibility as it knows that its actions will be examined in the press.

The importance of the press

So why, in this day and age, are newspapers still so important? Isn't the Internet enough? It's because despite the advancement and availability of the Internet, newspapers continue to be the source of information of choice for the majority who are either unable or unwilling to access alternate sources of reporting on the web. Because of this, newspapers continue to be able to influence citizens’ opinion on many issues, and with one-sided reporting, people may more easily arrive at the conclusion that the owners of the newspapers want.

Without newspapers pushing for transparency and accountability, and helping citizens make informed decisions, the possibility of corruption in all areas of society increases.

Having a free press is vital to the survival of our nation.

The Government must find the willpower to place the interests of the country first and release control of the press. The editors and journalists of Singapore must be courageous and true to their conscience, and take up the sacred duty of reporting the truth. Only then can they begin to regain the respect of the citizens which is slowly but surely being eroded.

We, too, as the citizens of Singapore must also band together and insist on our right to unfiltered information.

Until then, we shall continue to have one of the most restricted presses in the world, ranked alongside Zimbabwe, Liberia and Iran.

NOTE: A group of bloggers will be submitting a paper to the Government, detailing the changes they would like to see made to our laws and regulations of the Internet. This paper is into its final revisions and will be out in a matter of days. Stay tuned for more information on The Bloggers' Feedback to the Government.