Gangasudhan / Photo courtesy of Mark O’Brien under Creative Commons

Singapore officials seem to have missed the point of the index by erroneously equating it with press quality.

IN RESPONSE to the Freedom Press Index 2009 released last week by Reporters Without Borders, our multi-million-dollar government has scrambled to address the unflattering results with a somewhat comical reaction.

On the back of the index’s release, which ranked Singapore 133rd among 175 countries (up from 144th place last year), the Straits Times (Press freedom index: Singapore 133rd) managed to get sound-bites last week from the chairman of the Government Parliamentary Committee for Information, Communications and the Arts, Mr Zaqy Mohamad, who said the improved ranking “underlines that our press remains credible especially in the face of challenges like the new media” – whatever that means – and thought that it could be because of the media diversity here, with mainstream media going online and “a variety of newspapers like Today.

The competition creates pressure for media agencies to provide better-quality work” apparently.

Distinguishing Press Freedom from Press Quality
Never mind that the index does not purport to assess press quality – i.e. the quality of the reports, opinions or layout for that matter – and only concerns itself with the issue of press freedom. In fact, the methodology description itself ends with the assertion that the ‘index should in no way be taken as an indication of the quality of the press in the countries concerned’ which makes the good chairman’s analysis ‘divorced from reality’ – so to speak.

Well, what the index does try to do instead is reflect ‘the degree of freedom that journalists and news organisations enjoy in each country, and the efforts made by the authorities to respect and ensure respect for this freedom’. Which means to say that a lousy piece of trash article without self-censorship, government suggestion and selective reporting would score higher than an informative and articulate piece of propaganda.

The process of deriving the index itself involves administering an open-ended 40-question survey (not to be confused with ST’s polls that typically use 100 respondents picking off options skewed towards desired outcomes) to “Reporters Without Borders’ partner organisations (15 freedom of expression groups in all five continents), to its network of 130 correspondents around the world, and to journalists, researchers, jurists and human rights activists”.

A weighted score is then given for each country and the index ranks the countries according to the scores (the lower the better). This is not unlike our ‘celebrated’ meritocratic system in Singapore which repeatedly and conscientiously ranks everything based on a holistic weighted score (think PSLE and GCE ‘O’ Levels) with little regard for individual competencies in specific segments.

Unhappy Law Minister Tires Guests
In stark contrast to the ‘happy’ Mr Zaqy Mohamad with his sound-bite, Mr K Shanmugam meanwhile lambasted the index’s results in a keynote speech on Monday. Talking to a group comprising predominately of Americans at the Seasonal Meeting of the New York State Bar Association International Section, he acknowledged, “I know some of you had a long flight, many of you, and I had meant to skip this part. But I am going to talk to you a little bit about our approach to the press”, and duly went on to devote 10 paragraphs, or 1.5 pages of his 10-page speech, condemning the (lowly) ranking of Singapore in the Freedom Press Index.

He used direct comparisons with the war-torn countries of Guinea, Congo and Kenya to illustrate the point of how ludicrous the index must be to rank Singapore below these countries and asks “whether a truly objective assessment will give us such a ranking”. Well, just as the Singapore system is blind to the background of the rich man’s son that can afford him the best private tuition money can buy, so too is the index blind to the socio-economic infrastructure of the countries assessed.

The fact that a more credible report on a specific incident can emanate from these war-torn countries as compared to how information on the escape of Mas Selamat can be so botched up, means that these ‘lowly’ countries deservedly score better and consequently get ranked higher on the index.

Why Singapore Scores Low
Although Reporters Without Borders does not offer a specific justification for Singapore’s score, the good minister should read the methodology and the questionnaire which is easily available on its website (perhaps, he already has?) before launching into any tirade. The 40 questions cover a range of issues with regard to Press Freedom such as:

  • Physical Attacks, Imprisonment and Direct Threats
  • Indirect Threats, Pressures and Access to Information
  • Censorship and Self-Censorship
  • Public Media
  • Economic, Legal and Administrative Pressure
  • Internet and New Media
  • Number of Journalists Murdered, Detained, Physically Attacked or Threatened, and Government’s Role in This
  • Country Media Data

In contrast to what the Law Minister feels, there is actually nothing to be surprised when a war-torn country may have plenty of violence but none directed at the press (which would give a good score on this index). Similarly, the very socio-political infrastructure here in Singapore would mean that several areas of the questionnaire would elicit negative scores (e.g. self-censorship of mainstream media and public media monopoly).

The index is also specific in its timeframe and covers a 12 month period from 1st September to 31st August, which would further explain why the index for 2008 ranked Singapore 144th with 49 points as compared to its 2009 ‘improved’ position with 45 points. In the period from September 2007 to August 2008, the FEER defamation suit and Gopalan Nair’s detention both occurred, which would have naturally added more points to the score. As luck would have it, no such major incident occurred in the current period which would automatically have resulted in a better score – without any proactive action by the government.

Thus the issue is not whether the index is ‘divorced from reality’ but why Singapore’s media infrastructure puts it in the bottom quarter of the index time and again – a monopoly on media outlets and a culture that allows for self-censorship to be widely practised will ensure that it scores upwards of 40 points every year (which would subsequently keep it in the 100+ range in rankings). Instead of making sweeping judgements that the index is absurd, the government would do well to consider what press freedom really means and look at the rather simple criteria on which it fails.

Simply ignoring what you don’t understand is certainly not a demonstration of good governance.

“Our approach has therefore to [sic] been to ignore the criticisms which make no sense (to us).”
Mr K Shanmugam, Minister for Law & Second Minister for Home Affairs
26th October 2009

Further Reading

How the index was compiled

Questionnaire for compiling the 2009 Press Freedom Index

Transcript of Mr K Shanmugam’s speech

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