Freedom of expression, the Singapore way

Freedom of expression, the Singapore way

By Howard Lee

Today is the 20th anniversary of World Press Freedom Day, and I fear that it would go by with hardly a whimper on our national consciousness.

Is my pessimism compounded by a jaded perception that we have already reached a point where bread and butter issues have taken precedence over everything else, including our civil liberties?

Or by the desperate resignation that the latest press freedom index published by Reporters Without Frontiers in February this year has placed Singapore even lower than before, at a dismal ranking of 149? In terms of protecting the rights of journalists to practice their craft for the greater social good, we are only doing marginally better (or less worse off) than Iraq and Myanmar.

Is our poor ranking in the press freedom index an issue? Not according to Law Minister K Shanmugam, when he dismissed the RSF rankings as “quite absurd and divorced from reality”, and merely came to be because foreign journalists felt unhappy that they cannot criticise with impunity like they do in other countries.

Of course, press censorship in Singapore goes beyond foreign media. Ask Chong Yip Seng, former Singapore Press Holding editor-in-chief and author of OB Markers; or Cherian George, former journalist and author of Freedom from the Press; or Chua Chin Hon, Straits Times’ bureau chief in the United States who won himself some Wikileaks fame. All have testified that the government has ever put pressure on our mainstream media to toe certain editorial guidelines not of their own choosing.

Even so, my view is that our traditional media need not feel too oppressed. For one, the reality of what happens in Singapore suggests that, while journalists around the world are losing their lives and incarcerated without trial for writing what they believe in, our guys at the Big Two nowadays would likely get little more than a slap on the wrist, a black mark, or at worst “a cup of tea”.

For another, the lack of real competition in our media market essentially means our media have a lot more autonomy than they believe they do, giving them the option to negotiate through situations that might have otherwise led to legal action.

Not the same for online media. Since 2006, the government has been ridiculing online media in general (and specifically at National Day rallies), casting aspirations on what blogs represent. Former Minister for Information, Communication and the Arts Lui Tuck Yew have also praised newspapers for their continued accuracy and quality – implying that online media lack these qualities and are hence not dependable.

This verbal abuse, however, has also given way to more direct methods of influence. Most recently, blogs and other online channels have been served letters from the Attorney-General Chambers demanding that they take down certain content, sometimes even to apologise, or face legal consequences. Such actions do have a chilling effect on freedom of expression online, as it leaves content owners in limbo about whether they can risk repeating it.

None of which really represents what online media stands for. Online media fill a void in our media environment. We write the stories that mainstream media cannot or will not cover and this in turn adds to diversity of conversations in our society. If freedom of expression has been seen as being abstract from bread and butter issues, then online media has really buckled this distinction by highlighting our daily struggles in its narrative.

Perhaps it is apt that this year’s World Press Freedom Day conference is titled “Safe to Speak: Securing Freedom of Expression in All Media”. We have often enough seen the struggle for freedom of expression as something for mainstream media, but now would be time to cast that light online, too, and discover the unique qualities that it offers.

At some stage, the government must accept that, while they can continue to deny the validity of the press freedom index, there is no escaping the reality that we are starting to see more often since the apologies of the last general elections: Online media users in Singapore are at risk, not just from the law, but their fundamental right to be heard.

Lastly, while the call for press freedom is directed at governments, it is also our duty as citizen journalists to be as good as, if not better than, those we call professional journalists, both in craft and in our willingness to serve the people we write for.