In a casual living room setting filled with diplomats, writers and bloggers, the conversation eventually turned to a question about whether a blogger can be considered a journalist. The room was undecided, compounded especially by bloggers who felt that they could not represent journalism in any professional sense.
But one participant, highly regarded in our journalistic circles, brought it all back to the ground by giving this basic definition of “journalist” – “someone who keeps and writes a journal”. While in no way definitive of the journalistic profession we are familiar with today, it does highlight what every society needs: Someone who is able to share the stories of a community, using media that extends beyond the scope of a one-to-one conversation.
Journalism, when view in this way, is not about whether you have a press card or if you get paid to write for a bona fide newspaper. Journalism is about applying the skills of the trade for an audience that needs to read the stories you want to tell, and doing so with the best ethics that you can put into every single word. Around the world, these journalists do not just fill large corporate newsrooms, but also work for small town newspapers, local radio and community newsletters.
And Singapore, too, has no lack of such journalism, despite our small size that makes the concept of community media sound implausible. For too long, the ridicule of Singapore’s dismal ranking in international press freedom indices had but one saving grace: That there are still individuals committed to speaking up for their community, even if the mainstream media would not or cannot. These individuals have found their place in the (relative) freedom of the internet, where they can express their views in their blogs or social media platforms.
Unfortunately, recent years have given rise to an increasing threat of violence to such individuals. Of course, compared to our regional neighbours, where journalists risk life and limb, face death threats and have real guns pointed at their heads while working in politically regressive regimes or societies overrun with organised crime, our woes seem laughably insignificant.
But the slew of legal action brought against individuals like Alex Au, Roy Ngerng and Leslie Chew for voicing their opinions, as well as every major social-political website currently on our shores, should give us pause to ask: Are we any less under threat?
Ours is a political system of intolerance towards dissenting voices, and such intolerance has recently gotten bolder in attitude and harsher in tone. Even a teenager who posted disparaging remarks about a political leader can win the wrath of the law. Not only that, but we are starting to see a growing intolerance among our population, who have no qualms about advocating violence towards contrarian voices.
The same voices who are at times doing nothing more than applying the skills of the journalistic trade for an audience that they believe needs to read the stories they want to tell.
For sure, not every case can be seen as applying standards worthy of the journalistic profession, and clearly the polish, nuancing and simple EQ of some leave much to be desired. But such factors should not, however, be justification for the State and individuals bent on reading only the “right thing” to clamp down on these contrarian voices.
Freedom of expression allows us to debate freely, disagree or come to a consensus. It lets society solve its own problems, not through the use of a gun, online lynch mob, police report or a letter of demand; but through reason and respect.
Singaporean society, unfortunately, has relied too heavily and far too long on the State apparatus to resolve our differences for us, and it is clear today that it has made us more retarded in our ability to think critically and engage meaningfully. In effect, we gave up our collective right to free expression, in exchange for a police state, where we are happy only if we are all made deputies.
This is not free speech. It is not even a sufficient excuse for championing responsible speech. It is violence committed upon others who have done nothing more than state an opinion different from yours. It is violence that has consequences more lasting than simply unfriending someone on Facebook. It is violence that has seeped into our national psyche as something that is justifiable, when in reality nothing justifies it.
World Press Freedom Day this year will be remembered as the day in a year where Singapore as a nation exhibit to the world precisely how narrow our minds are towards those who seek free expression.
We will stand in solidarity with those who have suffered violence for daring to speak out, for so have we suffered violence. The oppression we face is the same, even if the face of that oppression is different. Singapore needs to do better, and if the duty of making it better falls on those who keep and write a journal, then so be it.
“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