Media freedom – a bid for trust in policy making

~ By Howard Lee ~

As Singaporeans – or perhaps only those who go online – we would be familiar with the usual lines of “the government restricts media freedom”, or “the press is controlled in Singapore”, or “the media is forced to self-censor.”

Not many would realise that the traditional media in Singapore actually wields quite a bit of influence over our government.

The story goes that during the economic downturn in 2008, traditional media was actively lobbying the Singapore government to help keep readers subscribed to their dailies. Evidently, there was a lot of logic from the ground then that cancelling newspaper subscriptions and finding alternative sources of news online would help to save costs.

The fact that traditional media does this should not be a surprise. They are commercial entities after all. It is not unusual for a commercial entity to use political leverage on the government to advance its interest. Corporations around the world are doing that.

Unfounded premise

What was unusual is the second half of the story, which says that traditional media enticed the government to help by declaring that, if they go down, the government would not be able to get its message out to the public.

If this story were true, that is some serious risk-taking in the capital gains that all media entities should hold dear – an unchallenged reach into our reading population – just to get a few more newspaper subscriptions.

We should not be surprised, however, that such an incident can happen. TOC has previously analysed the close relationship that our traditional media has with the power elite (Future media: Evolution of a discerning public, 20 Sep 2011),  a nexus of symbiotic relationships forged out of an interest to maintain a certain status quo.

But the inconvenient truth is that, within a limited media environment, where citizens do not have much choice in their channels of information, such actions are not just about money or mutual benefit. It is a breach of public trust.

We then wonder what the Minister for Information, Communication and the Arts Yaccob Ibrahim, meant when he recently declared (in a speech entitled 'Traditional and online media in the new normal', 23 Apr 2012), “While our newspapers, radio and TV exercise their own independent editorial judgement in their reporting, we must remain mindful of the role and responsibilities. Our media model is one based on forging consensus and facilitating nation-building. We preserve social cohesion and empower audiences to make informed decisions as a society.”

Or for that matter, what his predecessor Lui Tuck Yew had in mind when he opined in 2009 (Advice to main media: Stay balanced, Straits Times, 10 Sep 2009), “As long as the mainstream media reflects the reality on the ground more accurately than any other sources, you ought to be able to retain a sizeable segment of your population.”

Not the people's champion

Whatever our government believes to be the national role of our traditional media, they can be assured that it is not one that champions the interest of citizens.

In an ideal world where the media sees itself as providing a public service, the media would be confident that its readers will still find it relevant, and if not, adjust itself to prove that threat wrong.

But these statements by the highest rank in MICA, and hence representative of the government’s position, are clearly the government’s public way of endorsing the legitimacy of traditional media.

The fact that the government has willingly participated in the support of traditional media can only mean one thing: That it finds logic and value in this contract to keep mainstream media as its mouthpiece. It does not matter that the size of an influential online media is probably too minute to make make waves, even if it does have a positive impact in challenging and improving the value of media to citizens. The government's interest was to maintain the power and influence of traditional media.

Ironically, MICA's latest effort has been to encourage the conceptualisation, development and adoption – from the ground up, no less – of a code of conduct for the Internet, which purportedly promotes the interest of citizens, when it has yet to demonstrate that it has ever had the interest of citizens to begin with, when it comes to their media consumption.

Do we then wonder why the online community has had such misgivings about this code, even a grassroots initiated one? Deep down, there has never been an environment of trust built between the government and citizens for them to believe that our media can ever be a public service. Our media has only been moulded to become a tool for the government to "get its messages across". Citizens have a right to view any code that attempts to limit their new-found freedom online as another way for the government to exert influence over yet another channel.

Such influence, in the most sophisticated form of "governmentality", need not even be directly legislated or enforced. Minimally, it will need to be instituted. A grassroots initiative, as long as representative of a rules-based approach, will lend itself to institutionalisation and control.

Fear of democratisation

Has this desire for media influence changed since GE2011? If MICA does honestly seek to implement a policy for the benefit of citizens, just saying that it is sincere will not win it any more trust than before. It now faces a more discerning citizenship, to which it needs to prove its worth. To do so, it needs to play on their terms, not its own exclusive circle of influence. With an increasingly savvy Internet population, this has never been a more uphill task.

This brings us to the question on why our traditional media should be so concerned about citizens going online for their news. Discounting our anecdotal example, do still remember that both ministerial statements were made at Singapore Press Club events.

Technically, citizens going online should mean nothing more than moving more business to their own online channels, to where the eyeballs are.

Evidently then, traditional media is not concerned that they will lose eyeballs. What they really fear is citizens going online to begin with, because there lies its true demise – the democratisation of ideas, which it is unable to provide because they have never understood the concept of writing for the people. It is not the lack of quality content that will kill our traditional media, but the lack of context.

In the end, traditional media will only know to hack away at the one value that it has always laid claim to, to which Yaccob has recently and unfortunately renewed a preference for: playing by the rules that the media-political elite has carved out as a niche for themselves. They have not realised, or simply refuse to realise, that the context has changed.

Today is an environment where the Internet has allowed a certain degree of media competition, fledging though it might be. This competition is one that is roughly based on the public service model of media, where the medium that can best demonstrate a desire to represent the interest of citizens poses a threat to the medium that doesn’t. For all its occasional faults, idiosyncrasies and general rawness, online media prove capable of being that threat to traditional media.

Misplaced focus on unnecessary CoC

Evidently, MICA has a lot of new thinking to do. It is thus disheartening that it chooses to focus its attention on an unnecessary Internet Code of Conduct, when there is a clear and pressing need to revise existing media policies. Key to this is a re-examination of the relationship that has built up over the years between the media, the state and the people. Nothing short of an overhaul of our entire slate of media policies will allow it to establish a media environment that it now increasingly needs – not to push out messages with, but for it to remain relevant to begin with! This is an environment that can no longer be based on control, but trust.

What about traditional media? The current structures that it has allowed itself to be governed by since our nation’s independence has become a comfort blanket for it to maintain information authority. Our traditional media is still delusional in thinking it exists in a sterile environment where competition is never real. We have an entire policy framework that, intentionally or not since conceptualisation, has been geared towards a limited number of players in media, for the purpose of controlling the message. The Internet age changed all that. Our policy has not changed in tandem, and neither has the outlook of our traditional media owners.

On World Press Freedom Day, it will be timely for MICA to drop the idea of an Internet code of conduct and honestly consider a complete review of existing media policies instead. This review must now be based, not on control, but on building trust with citizens. There is also a need to acknowledge online media for what it is, rather than subject it to the existing model applied to traditional media. And it must be advised by a clear understanding that the old ways of institutions and regulations can no longer apply.

We need to start working towards that ideal world today. Without doing so, Singapore’s media environment will never evolve, and those who still seek to control it for their own purpose will always find it an exasperating experience, battling on the fringes of control and mindshare, where the real war in modernity is about winning the trust of the people.

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