Press freedom (or the lack of it) has always been an issue that Singapore has faced. We have been frequently criticised by international media and always lead the list (from bottom up) in the Press Freedom Index. This reputation is not something that the late Mr Lee Kuan Yew shied away from.
In fact, he was proud of it and often defended this policy of restricting the press. From the many high profile cases of suing international media publications for defamation to manoeuvres made to control the local press, Mr Lee has always sought to control the press. Suffice to say, Mr Lee, an eminent politician understood the power of the written word.
What no one and certainly not Mr Lee anticipated was the development of the Internet and how this would alter the face of journalism and communication the world over.
In days of yore, reaction times were slower. Readers did not have the means to instantaneously comment and discuss a breaking story. Journalists were unable to move stories at such a rapid pace. It is also important to remember that often times, reactions reinforce other reactions and emotions can quickly lead to public hysteria. The way news is published and disseminated these days certainly facilitates rigorous discourse and mass histrionics in equal measure. It is safe to assume that mass media can lead to tensions running high which can in turn to all manner of things – such as (god forbid) protests and peaceful demonstrations in Singapore.
In the past, Singapore only needed to worry about what was being printed such that if you cut off the supply chain, there is no sustenance for the public to react to. Now however, there are a new set of concerns, the immediate nature of news which makes it increasingly difficult to censor and public reaction harder to predict or pre-empt.
Even if you force offending articles to be removed, there are still screen caps to keep the juice going. Besides, by the time you have removed the article, there is no telling how many people have already seen it and how many others they have already told.
While the establishment may have concerns about these new news platforms, they do not necessarily view it as the bogeyman. Far from it. They recognise its power and have harnessed it to their advantage as well. Does the PAP not have a Facebook page? Do our politicians not now tweet?
However, we are now at a tenuous point between the benefits of the Internet versus the possible threat to the establishment. Is there a way to harness the Internet for the benefit only of the establishment while cutting off the negatives to it?
It seems there have been attempts to try and accomplish this very feat. Singapore is unable to sustain cutting Facebook or the like in the way China has done. We are too much of an open economy to risk that. So short of doing that, online media regulations have been put in place to ensure that people read the “right things”. Bloggers who have refused to toe the line have faced the music – Alex Au and Roy Ngerng, just to name the two most prominent examples.
It has also been at a disconcertingly insidious pace. First, up the online media regulations to test how this would work. Where it lacks, you prosecute. While I am not suggesting that I agree wholesale with what such bloggers say, I find it alarming that press freedoms are still being curbed despite the explosion of technology and the government seemingly making use of the same technology while depriving others of the same.
I also worry about what’s coming next. With Ngerng still not off the hook and Amos Yee’s trial upcoming, what does this mean for alternative media in Singapore? Will the government take an even more hard-lined approach? Will Singaporeans fight for press freedom? Do we collectively understand how important it is?
On World Press Freedom Day, we should reflect on the power of media and what it means for us. Elections have been won, scandals have been brought to light and misuses of power have been brought to justice because of the media. Yes, there are the downsides of irresponsible bloggers but is that downside enough of a reason to clamp down on them all? Or is it an excuse to ensure that certain publications that do not toe the line are shut down for good?
For me personally, an independent press is vital to accountability.
“Quality journalism enables citizens to make informed decisions about their society’s development. It also works to expose injustice, corruption, and the abuse of power. For this, journalism must be able to thrive, in an enabling environment in which they can work independently and without undue interference and in conditions of safety.” – UN Secretary-General Ban Ki-moon, UNESCO Director-General Irina Bokova, and UN High Commissioner for Human Rights Zeid Ra’ad Al Hussein