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ST Editor: Online sites attack mainstream media to divert traffic and revenues to themselves

At a hearing of the Select Committee on Deliberate Online Falsehoods yesterday (23 Mar), SPH Editor-in-chief Warren Fernandez accused online sites of attacking mainstream media so as to divert traffic and revenues to their sites.

He told the Committee that there has been a constant dripfeed attack on the credibility of mainstream media news, and the motivation is driven by commercial and political interest.

"Online, you do see a deliberate attempt to have a constant dripfeed attacking the mainstream media and it is a clear commercial and political purpose behind that because it is in their interest to cast a certain doubt about the mainstream media and therefore divert attention and audiences and with that revenues to their site. So there is a clear impact on us," he said.

MP Janil Puthucheary who is a member of the Select Committee asked Fernandez to state who are the "they" he was referring to and elaborate on what he had described.

In response, Fernandez replied, "It is an attempt to undermine trust as you mention, the dripfeed comes in constant attack on the mainstream media, potshots that are taken on us, questioning our credibility, pointing to delays in information and some of it comes from the different standards that we hold in what we consider be credible and reliable news."

"Because we wouldn't put out information which we are uncertain about, we would check and cross-check and that sometimes take time. It sometimes take effort to verify and we may choose not to put something out because we think the information is dubious," he further explained.

"But you may see it happening online and aspersions or questions are raised as to why we are withholding that information but there is absolutely no intention to withhold information. It is more (of a) process of us going through fact-checking that is necessary."

"So when I say they, I refer to other sites, I refer to individuals, bloggers who have interest in undermining the credibility of the mainstream media," he opined.

MP Puthucheary further asked, "What do you think is the interest in undermining your work?"

Fernandez replied, "As I mention it is partly to draw attention and audiences to their alternative sites and away from us. There is a commercial purpose."

In this regard, it is useful to note that SPH earned $504,041,000 in advertisement revenue in FY2017 while TOC Editor Terry Xu disclosed that TOC only earned $13,000 in advertising revenue for the same period.

No intention to withhold information?

It is strange that Fernandez said there is "absolutely" no intention for SPH to withold the publishing of information when evidence from Wikileak has shown otherwise.

In 2010, the Cablegate affair shocked the world, which involved Wikileak founded by Julian Assange leaking confidential as well as secret US diplomatic cables to the world via his site. The classified US diplomatic cables were submitted by anonymous whistle-blowers to Assange.

These cables, dated between Dec 1966 and Feb 2010 were sent to the US State Department in Washington DC by 274 of its consulates, embassies, and diplomatic missions around the world. They contain diplomatic analysis from world leaders, and the US diplomats' assessment of host countries and their officials. In total, the 251,287 cables were leaked, making Cablegate one of "the largest set of confidential documents ever to be released into the public domain".

One of the leaked cables, "09SINGAPORE61_a", actually originated from the US Embassy in Singapore. It was written and disseminated by the US Embassy in Singapore sometime in Jan 2009 to the various other US Embassies in the region, the CIA as well as to the Secretary of State. The cable was marked as "Confidential".

ST Reporter confirms media restrictions on oppositions

This cable essentially captured the views of insiders working in SPH. One of these insiders was Ms Lynn Lee, a reporter for Straits Times (ST) who was quoted by the embassy to state the disconnect between government-approved editors and the ordinary reporters on the ground.

In Sep 2008, opposition icon J.B. Jeyaretnam (JBJ) passed away. Ms Lee revealed that there was an internal debate in SPH over the amount of coverage that ST would dedicate to JBJ.

She said that while the editors agreed with reporters' demand for extensive coverage of JBJ political career and funeral, they rejected reporters' suggestions to limit the amount of coverage devoted to the relatively long eulogies provided by Singapore's government leaders.

In the end, the statements from Singapore's ministers took up a significant portion of the allotted space, she lamented. This meant that the coverage of JBJ's long political career and his struggle with the ruling party and government was being withheld and limited.

With regard to the what was reported in the above cable, the US Embassy writer commented:

"The traditional media in Singapore are certainly no more restricted today than they have ever been, and other than on race and religion, online speech is generally unrestricted. That raises the question why reporters seem to be complaining more, or at least more openly. We suspect this reflects in part a generational shift; younger Singaporeans are accustomed to having more latitude, and it likely grates on reporters not to be able to say in print the kind of things people routinely say in cafes or online. It may also be that the leaderships, own frequent suggestions of the need for (incremental) political reforms may be raising expectations that so far have not been met."

In any case, it is interesting to note that Singapore's mainstream media is ranked 151st in the 2017 World Press Freedom Index by the Reporter Without Borders. It is ranked together with the likes of Russia (148th), Tajikistan (149th), Ethiopia (150th), Swaziland (152nd), Belarus (153rd), Congo (154th) and Turkey (155th) together.