By Howard Lee
If you were to look at the media releases and statements issued by the Media Development Authority the past three months, you might be fooled into thinking that it is actually the Media Regulatory Authority.
Starting from the revision to the Broadcasting Act to the latest requirement for The Independent Singapore – a website that purports to provide a balanced view of news in Singapore – to be registered under the Broadcasting Act, it has been move after move of regulation, not development.
The pretext for this latest was that “The Government has received specific information which gives it cause for concern over foreign interest to fund The Independent.”
The Independent has since responded to categorically deny such “specific information”, particularly pointing out that “the posture of The Independent is and has always been to be a purely Singapore-funded media operation which does not accept foreign funds”.
On the surface, it sounds like a case of misunderstanding. On closer inspection, MDA actually has a fair bit of explaining to do, particular in relation to how it makes policy decisions and the elaborate and excessive use of the public service apparatus to… do what, exactly?
How did he authorities receive this “specific information”, who specifically gave this information and how did MDA verify the accuracy of this information? Are our policy makers making policy decisions on information that they care not to reveal? How, then, would we know that future decisions are made with good data collection and analysis, instead of acting on a hunch, rumour or unverifiable tip-off, a practice which the Minister of Communications and Information has took pains in Parliament to weed out of citizens?
Such an exchange could clearly have been left as a private exchange between MDA and The Independent. Why was there a need to make this exchange public?
Why the media embargo? Media embargoes are commonly used where the announcement is time sensitive – for instance, a global launch of a new product. Was this the case here? Why was the embargo lifted only at 6pm, when the media release doesn’t actually say much?
Was the announcement of sufficient weight to warrant the time and resources of paid public officers? Given that The Independent has not officially launched and is only in its infancy of building a readership base, is it a “prime vehicle for political influence”? Why would what happens to it be of such significant media interest to warrant a press briefing? If not, why clamp down on a budding website?
In short, why the big hoo-ha to get The Independent covered in the news? I am supportive of the people behind The Independent and what they do, but it is so far only clear at this point in time that they are simply in the infancy of establishing themselves and would need at the financial help they can get. MDA, unfortunately, is not doing much to help them develop this capacity, despite its namesake.
Indeed, the effort and resources needed for MDA to dish out such an elaborate scheme – embargoed media briefing, media release that is as enlightening as a busted light bulb, kicking up a fuss over a website that has barely launched – begs more questions about the agency’s effectiveness in what it purports to do. If this case is merely to make an example of The Independent for the benefit of the online community, it is really a lot of theatre using public funds, but with very little logic.
Contrarily, we are once again left confused about MDA’s actions. It seems that it is doing nothing more than issue a publicity statement on behalf of The Independent, using a nebulous “foreign funding” as an excuse. Meanwhile, The Independent’s viewership is starting to climb, even before its official launch.
MDA should also have learnt by now that such actions do nothing more than irk online users looking for more choice in the information they receive, who will likely perceive this move as another example of the government’s heavy hand. The apparent elaborate manipulation of the mainstream media (for not much news, actually) will also drive more news seekers online for their news – even if this latest cripple The Independent, more will likely rise in its place, not to mention existing players who are still at it.
Additional notes on what this latest regulatory move was based on…
Part X, 43 of the Broadcasting Act states that:
“foreign source” [of funding] includes —
(a) the government of a country outside Singapore or the agent of any such government, whether resident in Singapore or otherwise;
(b) any company, association or society incorporated or constituted under any law in force outside Singapore, whether or not it has a branch office or place of business in Singapore;
(c) any person who is not a citizen of Singapore, whether or not he is resident in Singapore;
(d) any (i) body corporate formed or incorporated in Singapore, one or more of whose members or directors are not citizens of Singapore, or in the case of a member being another company, where one or more of the members or directors of such company are not citizens of Singapore; or (ii) unincorporated association or body constituted under any law in force in Singapore, one or more of whose members or directors are not citizens of Singapore, or in the case of a member being another company, where one or more of the members or directors of such company are not citizens of Singapore…