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Ong Ye Kung says media hijacked by “fake news” but ex-ST Editor says SG media hijacked by govt

by Vincent Low

At the Shangri-La Dialogue Sherpa Meeting yesterday (29 Jan), Minister Ong Ye Kung told the audience that "fake news" is one of the security threats the world faces today in addition to terrorism.

He noted that "fake news" is increasingly undermining social fabric and national unity.

"Propaganda has never been this powerful, and automated. The only difference is that it is now used, including by foreign players, against national institutions," he said, adding that countries are recognising that there is a need to come up with legislation and safeguards in the short term to combat "fake news”.

He quoted France where the authorities are looking to grant judges emergency powers to remove or block content deemed to be "fake news" during sensitive periods such as elections.

In Singapore, a Select Committee has been set up to look into the problem of deliberate online falsehoods and recommend strategies to deal with it. "Today, media as we know has been hijacked by something much more unpredictable and volatile. The fundamental condition for democracy has been weakened," he said.

"Society will fight back, to restore our democratic institutions. This will be done through regulation, a likely drastic reconfiguration of the media industry, and an evolution of societies to become more discerning of what’s real and what’s false and malicious."

However, contrary to what Ong has said, the media in Singapore today has, in fact, been "hijacked" by the government.

Former ST Editor-in-Chief tells all in his memoir

This is according to the former ST Editor-in-Chief Cheong Yip Seng who published his memoir, "OB Markers: My Straits Times Story" in 2012.

In his book, Cheong talked about how Prime Minister Lee's father, Lee Kuan Yew, systematically controlled the press with draconian laws and protected it with anti-competition barriers. Cheong told of his first taste of Lee's distaste for media practitioners.

One of the bravest episodes was when Peter Lim, Cheong's predecessor, resisted Lee's pressure to print the full 'O' level results of opposition politician Chiam See Tong during the 1984 election. Lee wanted to show to voters that Chiam did not have the academic credentials to be a capable MP. Lim resisted because he felt it would backfire on the ruling party and the newspaper.

Cheong also related how his boss, Peter Lim, had tried to run the newsroom with some form of independence and paid the price for it by having to resign in 1987. Cheong himself was careful to make sure that he was not going to face that kind of fate. He knew when to give in, when to remain stoic and when to argue — gently, that is - when the notorious phone calls came. This is very different in other first world countries where newspaper editors do not need to take orders from the government.

His memoir described the many interventions in Singapore's media by the government - from appointments of editors to shaping coverage of political and foreign events and even to minor stories like stamp-collecting, carpet-buying and MSG, which the government deemed important for the citizens to know.

And speaking of media coverage during sensitive periods such as elections, Cheong revealed that ST got a phone call during the 1988 GE and with that phone call, ST stopped covering the election campaign of former Solicitor General Francis Seow overnight. Mr Seow was then standing as an opposition candidate under Workers' Party in Eunos GRC, running against the People's Action Party.

Cheong's writing is a laudable effort to put on record the media-government tensions and the astonishing government meddling that editors like Cheong had to deal with regularly. Newspapers editors in other first world countries don't have such problems. In fact, first world countries rely on multiple newspapers in a free press marketplace to check on each other.