Terence Lee takes a closer look at our Press Freedom ranking.

Does S’pore deserve its press ranking?

Terence Lee

In a 2008 survey by Freedom House, Singapore has shown no improvement in its freedom of the press, despite the maturing of online media as a medium to air alternative views.

The latest results reveal nothing new: much has already been said about the deplorable state of press freedom in Singapore, ranked a lowly 153rd out of 195 countries, sharing the same ranking as Iraq. The idea that Singapore is first-world in economic competitiveness but third-world in press freedom and civil liberties has already become an over-sung tune.

A check with Freedom House’s past survey results revealed that Singapore has not only been stagnating, but has in fact deteriorated in terms of press freedom, increasing from a score of 60 (the lower the score, the freer the press) in 1994 to 69 in 2008.

Singapore occupies the lower rungs with many third-world countries like Iraq and Afghanistan, and lags far behind many of her ASEAN neighbours like Indonesia (114th) and Malaysia (141st) as well.

While widely quoted in the media, this information has often been accepted without much scrutiny. This inevitably leads to the question: does Singapore really deserve such a ranking?

It is debatable whether this assessment accurately portrays the actual situation on the ground. While the survey appears to measure only “press freedom” in Singapore, it should more accurately be described as measuring “media freedom.” A look at the assessment methodology reveals that the evaluation criteria encompasses not just print but all of news media – from newspapers to television to the internet.

There is no doubt that Singapore is beset by laws that continue to hover ominously over the media. The Government continues to pull its strings: mostly dormant and behind the scenes, but still largely in control. Therefore, a widespread change in the media’s stance from compliance to self-assured independence is highly unlikely.

However, in spite of all the restrictions, journalism in Singapore has found a way to grow somewhat, riding on the wave of the Internet revolution. The journalism scene in Singapore today is certainly more vibrant than it was in 1994.

Competition

While The Straits Times’ bias has not changed much, much around it has changed. It faces more competition from TODAY, which promises “meaningful journalism” with a different perspective. While unable to deviate too far from the state’s dictum on the press, TODAY has offered a refreshing change of pace for press-weary Singaporeans with its more engaging writing style. Also, its commentaries on the Weekend Xtra edition also provides more diverse views that are much different from The Straits Times.

Furthermore, the Internet has forced the Government’s hand in allowing more deviant views to proliferate. It has realised that it cannot exert tight control over the Internet. As a result, opposition parties, bloggers, political activists and citizens have used the Internet to air their views and organise political activities. An example of the former would be Martyn See’s political films, some of which are banned in Singapore, but nevertheless still available on YouTube.

Growth impeded by state’s legislation

The end result? A more accurate picture of the general sentiment of Singaporeans, with the views in the mainstream media balanced out by those in alternative media. The effects of the Internet on the overall political sentiment of the populace are still unknown, however. Only in the next General Elections will we know whether a vocal and politically-active minority can influence the slumbering majority. By then, citizen journalism in Singapore would have matured some, and perhaps capture a wider audience.

The Government has promised changes to Internet regulations, and the blogosphere has responded by sending in its proposal. Any changes to legislation would be slow and steady, and this will be an issue of much interest to political watchers here. Nevertheless, the signs inevitably point towards more press freedom, but it will be a painstakingly-slow process.

However, true growth of journalism here is impeded by the state’s legislation. Unless the government introduces sweeping reforms to legislation like the Internal Security Act and the Newspaper and Printing Presses Act, don’t expect the state to rank any higher in next year’s edition of the survey.

Singapore and Iraq?

On the other hand, coming back to Singapore’s ranking in the Freedom House survey, it can also be argued that Singapore does not deserve to be ranked so lowly, with the same score as Iraq. Iraq seems to be in a worse situation – the nation remains an extremely dangerous place for journalists, and not just because it is a nation at war.

Besides laws limiting press freedom, Iraq has gone a step further by acting against the media. The Freedom House report mentions how “Sunni TV channels Al-Zaura and Salah al-Din, as well as the Dubai-based satellite channel Al-Sharqiya were closed down in late 2006 and early 2007 for airing footage of Iraqis protesting Saddam Hussein’s execution.” Furthermore, it was reported that “eleven employees of Wasan Media were arrested…for sharing video footage with Al-Jazeera of an interview with a woman who was allegedly raped by police.”

In the report, it was also mentioned that 42 journalists and media professionals were killed in 2007. Most of them were killed by insurgent groups and militias in Iraq. One example would be Sahar Hussein Ali al-Haydari, a female reporter who was shot down by 4 gunmen on June 7 from an Al-Qaeda affiliated group.

Surely a case can be made for Singapore here? While laws are in place to safeguard the state’s interests over freedom of speech, and heads of state have engaged in lawsuits against the International Herald Tribune and the Far Eastern Economic Review, no journalists have been known to be arrested or killed.

With that much said, perhaps we should not be too happy about the relative comfort that journalists here enjoy. The peace enjoyed here may not be a sign of health, but instead a deeper malaise.

As Frederick Douglass, an American statesman once said: “If there is no struggle, there is no progress. Those who profess to favour freedom, and deprecate agitation, are men who want crops without ploughing the ground, they want rain without thunder and lightning.

Read also Terence’s roundup of the new media scene in 2007:

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About the author: Terence Lee is a 1st year student at NTU School of Communication & Information. He is an aspiring journalist with an interest in public affairs and social issues. More of his works can be found in his blog at http://themadmadworld.blogspot.com.

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