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Graduate student interviews TOC on its purpose

Ms Chak Sopheap, a graduate student at the Graduate School of International Relations, International University of Japan, interviewed The Online Citizen several weeks ago. The following is the interview which was published on the website, Technology for Transparency Network.

Interview:

What problem is your project aiming to overcome?:

Our Vision: To reflect the views and opinions of ordinary Singaporeans. It is a platform which welcomes contributions from the man in the street, the average citizen who is concerned about issues facing our country.

Our Mission: The myth of objectivity by the mainstream media has been torn asunder by numerous citizen journalists. But are all citizen journalists advocacy journalists? We have sites like STOMP which claim to be citizen journalists.  But what they really do is introduce greater interactivity to traditional journalism.

Advocacy journalism champions causes and values like civic participation, open government and free media. The advocacy journalist makes no attempt to be “even handed” with the injustices of their day. He or she has seen through the illusory ‘objectivity’ and has assumed partisan positions from every point on the socio-political spectrum.  He or she is more of an activist with a blog and hence the name ‘blogivist’.

Being a bunch of blogivists, The Online Citizen will continue to redefine news, through the merger of opinions and reporting – forever blurring the lines between editorial and news.  The quasi opinions and veiled ‘viewpoints’ of the mainstream media will be routinely exposed and questioned by The Online Citizen; so that in the end, we will have a better and more inclusive Singapore.

Our Objective: We do not pretend to be right all the time in what we say. We are open to corrections and even criticisms. It is our hope that through the honest and civil exchange of views, all of us will benefit and perhaps take public discourse, especially on controversial issues, to a higher and mature level.

What are the roots of that problem?:

The climate of fear in Singapore.

Why did you personally become involved in this project?:

I have been involved in the homeless issue for many years. After spending some time in the US, I returned home and started working with an agency that helps the homeless. I wrote an article on homelessness, which the mainstream media did not want to publish, but TOC got it published.

Are you providing unofficial channels of information that should be provided by the government?:

We are not only an unofficial but also alternative channel of information.

Why is the government not providing the information?:

The government would like to stifle alternative views on information and it is the alternative views that the people are afraid to have.
It was the Prime Minister Lee Hsien Loong who said, "The figures are all released, it is just a question of whether you dig it out and publish it. But we will study how to present it, so that it tallies with the objectives we have."

Is there a freedom of information law in the country where this project is based?:

No

Is there a right to information law in the country where this project is based?:

No

How does the information published on your website turn into offline change?:

While our viewership is nothing compared to what some of the mainstream newspaper websites receive, nonetheless the people who read us include ministers, Members of Parliament, activists, international news agencies, etc. In short, people who matter most.

What is an example of how information on your website has led to a concrete change?:

An example would be the issue of foreign or migrant workers in Singapore. After our one week campaign on TOC in 2009, the Ministry of Manpower (MOM) took action - which include raiding various dormitory sites which houses these workers in atrocious housing. Also, the MOM has also been more answerable after these instances were first highlighted by TOC and later by the mainstream media.

How many people work on your project?:

10

How many hours a week do you personally spend on the project?:

15 hours

How many hours does the whole team spend on the project?:

100 hours

What are the most time consuming tasks?:

Reporting.

How do you extract value from large amounts of data? How do you build engagement around it?:

Our writers are mostly experts in their own field and we often work as a team to bring out the alternative value of the data.

How do you verify the identities of participants on your website?:

IP addresses.

How do you attract new participants?:

We have over 4000 fans on Facebook, we twitter, we hold recruitment drives, and via word of mouth.

What has been the most effective method of spreading awareness about your project?:

Facebook.

What are your biggest referrers? Where does most of your traffic come from?:

Google, Facebook, Yahoo. 64% of our audience are from Singapore, 14% are from India, 7% are from the Unites States of America and 7% are from the United Kingdom.

Where is your content re-posted? What effect has that had on your project?:

Many aggregation websites in Singapore, including Google News. It motivates us to up our standard.

Has legal action been taken against your website?:

None.

What metrics do you use to judge your own success?:

Quote by politicians, academics and NGOs. TOC believes that it has brought about a more critical perspective than mainstream media, has changed the mindset of policy makers, and has created a space for average citizens whose concern would not be echoed on mainstreamed media.

What are the incentives to participate in your project?:

No incentive except purely intrinsic ones to contribute towards a more inclusive and a better Singapore.

What are the biggest obstacles to your success?:

Difficulty in registering as a limited liability partnership, lack of funds, and the need more committed contributors.

How do you plan on overcoming those obstacles?:

Being persistent and adopting an NGO model to raise funds.

What skills and expertise would be of assistance to your project?:

Editorial, Development (fund-raising).

How do you plan on financially sustaining your project? :

We have to adopt the NGO approach in raising funds.

What other organizations are you working with?:

MARUAH (Singapore Working Group for an ASEAN Human Rights Mechanism) The Working Committee 2 (TWC2) , Anti-Mandatory Death Campaign are examples of NGOs we have worked with.

Have you thought about developing your own tools?:

We are exploring using technology to crowdsource ideas from the citizens. Examples of these are  Open Austin , and Datagov where people are able to submit ideas, comment and build on ideas, vote ideas up and down.

Has there been any communication between your project and government officials?:

Yes but unofficially on topics where we both agree that there is a need for greater dialogue. We need to be more objective and that objectivity requires more dialogue so that we can understand the issues deeply.

Are there any legal obstacles to your work? Any laws that should be changed?:

One thing is that our request to register as a Limited Liability partnership was rejected. Secondly, there are sense of censorship. According to Martyn See , there are three tiers of censorship in Singapore: "The 1st tier are the legislations passed by Parliament which restricts freedom of expression. The 2nd tier of censorship are those imposed by government bodies which are authorized by law to draw up guidelines and policies pertaining to political expression. A key feature of this 2nd tier of censorship are the non-transparency and the nebulous nature of its implementation, which leads to a blurring of the the line of what is acceptable and non-acceptable speech. This in turn creates a climate where writers, bloggers, artists and politicians self-censor their speech in order that they do not overstep boundaries. This climate of self-censorship forms the 3rd tier of censorship in Singapore."

Have there been any attempts to replicate your work elsewhere?:

Too many to mention - for example, Newasiarepublic.com

What other projects in your region should we know about?:

Support Site for the Unemployed ; journalism.sg ; Littlespeck

If someone gave you $30,000 how would you use the money?:

Toward expenses to become semi-professional.

What are your plans for 2010 and 2011?:

To become semi-professional where our report become more substantial through comprehensive research on different angles.