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Not quite the point, prime minister

By Andrew Loh

“I have given up that. I do not take them seriously. They put us somewhere around Zimbabwe. I said, so be it. I mean, they find it useful, I just ignore that.”

Those were the words of Prime Minister Lee Hsien Loong to a group of newspapers editors at the Istana on Tuesday. He was referring to the press freedom index by Reporters Without Borders (RWB).

“We manage our press, our media and our freedom of information in a way that makes sense for Singapore,” Mr Lee added.

There are two things about Mr Lee’s remarks which require closer attention.

The first is that Singapore’s press freedom standing is not “somewhere around Zimbabwe”, as Mr Lee mistakenly claims.

In its latest ranking (2014), RWB puts Zimbabwe at number 135.

Singapore, on the other hand, is ranked 150 – closer to the Philippines, Russia, Iraq, than to Zimbabwe.

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Mr Lee seems to think that Singapore’s low press freedom ranking is only from RWB. In fact, this is not so.

The other index which tracks such freedom is that from Freedom House (FH).

In its 2013 rankings, FH puts Singapore at 156, in the company of Iraq, Qatar, Angola and Kyrgyzstan.

Zimbabwe is at 171.

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Maybe Mr Lee can take some comfort that Singapore has done better in the FH rankings than in the RWB one, relative to Zimbabwe’s.

But the rankings are only one part of the picture.

The fact of the matter is that even if one dismisses the findings of these international organisations, there are enough testimonies from our own newspaper people (former or current) to show that there is a longstanding problem with the lack of press freedom here.

And some of these are very experienced practitioners, with many years of work in Singapore’s mainstream media landscape. They have spoken up about the lack of press freedom here.

“Singapore journalists tell us they are increasingly frustrated with the obstacles they face in reporting on sensitive domestic issues,” reads a 2009 United States Embassy cable which was released by Wikileaks in 2011.

You can read the cable here, titled: “Journalists frustrated by press controls”.

“Reporters have to be careful in their coverage of local news, as Singapore's leaders will likely come down hard on anyone who reports negative stories about the government or its leadership,” the cable said, referring to what Chua Chin Hon had told them. Chua was then the Straits Times’ (ST) U.S. Bureau Chief. He was also its former China Bureau Chief.

The cable went on:

“Chua lamented that the ST editors have all been groomed as pro-government supporters and are careful to ensure that reporting of local events adheres closely to the official line.  Chua said that unless one of the editors is a "Trojan Horse," someone that for years has successfully concealed any non pro-government leanings, none of them has the courage to publish any stories critical of the government.”

Chua was also reported to have said that the Singapore government “exerts significant pressure on ST editors to ensure that published articles follow the government's line.”

Chua’s views, as reported by the US Embassy, were echoed by Lynn Lee, another reporter with the Straits Times. She said, according to the cable, that reporters in Singapore “practice self-censorship” but that this was “not really needed as most censorship is done by the editors.”

Ms Lee seemed so disillusioned with the situation that she was reported to have said that her one-year stint in Indonesia would “determine whether or not she stays in the profession.”

However, following the release of the cable, Ms Lee issued a statement to deny saying the things attributed to her in the cable. She said that her comments to the embassy were “taken wholly out of context.”

Ms Lee, who had spent 8 years with the ST, disclosed in her 2011 statement that she was no longer with the paper and had in fact left journalism altogether.

Chua’s – or Lynn’s – views about how the state stifles press freedom here are also shared by the former editor of the paper itself.

Cheong Yip Seng had spent 43 years with the ST, rising from being a reporter to its editor-in-chief of the Singapore Press Holdings' English and Malay Newspapers Division.

In his “tell-all” book published in 2012, titled “OB Markers”, Cheong related several instances of how the state had tried to get its way in how reports and articles in the newspaper turned out.

“The Singapore government's intervention in media is legendary,” wrote PN Balji, in his review of Cheong’s book.

Mr Balji himself is a 30-year veteran in the local media landscape. He was formerly the first editor-in-chief of the TODAY newspaper, and he had also been deputy editor at the ST and the New Paper.

He wrote:

“Cheong describes many episodes -- from appointments of editors to shaping coverage of political and foreign events and even to minor stories like stamp-collecting, carpet-buying and MSG - with the pen of a master story teller.”

Cheong’s revelations are corroborated by Ms Bertha Henson, former associate editor of the ST. She wrote on her blog:

“Cheong’s book... is remarkable for the revelations that senior editors had thought should be closely guarded secrets. The phone calls from ministers, slap on the wrists, face-to-face meetings were something that we do not talk about in public.”

While Singapore reporters and journalists may still not talk openly about such things, they do in whispered tones in private meetings. At times, their silence tells you all you need to know. Indeed, there have been times when this writer has witnessed the exasperation on the faces of reporters which they could just about hold in, when asked about why their reports were inaccurate, or slanted in such and such a way.

But more than just making reporters and journalists upset, the stranglehold on the media has serious consequences for the country and its people.

One of these is how information which could generate debates about serious matters are withheld, or not allowed to be reported.

Cherian George, another former journalist with the ST and now Associate Professor and researcher specialising in journalism, explained at a forum in 2012:

“The whole reason for press controls is to ensure that the mainstream press are not an unadulterated reflection of popular opinion, and certainly not a vehicle for the most progressive forces in society... (instead) to ensure that the mainstream press is largely a centrist conservative institution.”

Balji said, however, that there is a danger for the mainstream media to be behind the curve of public opinion.

“[Why] is the government still continuing with this approach (in using its press controls)? My guess is they don’t think they have reached the danger zone yet... maybe they think they can still hold the ground,” he said.

So, with regards to PM Lee’s remarks about Singapore’s press ranking by RWB, that really is not the point.

What should be of importance is how our own media practitioners – those with many years of experience in the field – are calling for a more open and rational treatment of the media landscape here.

Whether international organisations rank us highly or lowly is moot.

The fact that even someone as senior as Cheong could not or chose not to reveal or even write about some of the more public and important events during his tenure in the ST in his “tell-all” book, perhaps shows that the insidious fear instilled in our newspapers and their staff is still very much ingrained.

Perhaps if the behind-the-scenes stories of these events were told, the state’s intrusion and control of the press would be more unsettling to the public.

As Balji wrote in his review of “OB Markers”:

Cheong avoided talking about some major events in his book: For instance, the over-night contraction in ST's coverage (after a phone call, that is)  of the 1988 election in which former Solicitor General Francis Seow was an Opposition candidate is never mentioned, the private conversation between Cheong and the second prime minister Goh Chok Tong that the government wanted him to take over as editor-in-chief is not explained and how the paper handled the 1987 Internal Security Act arrests for an alleged ‘Marxist conspiracy’ which rankle the elite till today is erased out.”

So, the real question is: why do we still need to walk on tip-toes when it comes to reporting the facts?

(Image credit: MCI)