Singapore maintains its ranking in Reporters Without Borders’ (Reporters Sans Frontières – RSF) World Press Freedom Index as the Republic takes the 151st spot again this year.
An increase of 0.46 points from 51.41 points last year, however, was also noted. An increase in points indicates a decrease in press freedom, according to the Index.
RSF, in its analysis on press freedom in the Asia-Pacific region in 2019, attributed Singapore’s ranking to its emulation of what the international non-governmental organisation had dubbed as “China’s anti-democratic model”, which “has established self-censorship as the norm” via “total news control”.
Citing China’s President Xi Jinping’s amendment of the constitution to allow a lifetime tenure in March last year, RSF stated that “the ruling elite” in China “suppresses all debate in the state-owned media while cracking down relentlessly on citizen-journalists who try to make a dissenting voice heard”.
“China’s anti-democratic model, based on Orwellian high-tech information surveillance and manipulation, is all the more alarming because Beijing is now promoting its adoption internationally.
“As well as obstructing the work of foreign correspondents within its borders, China is now trying to establish a “new world media order” under its control,” RSF observed.
It also charged that “Prime Minister Lee Hsien Loong’s government is always quick to sue critical journalists, apply pressure to make them unemployable, or even force them to leave the country”.
“Defamation suits are common and may sometimes be accompanied by a charge of sedition, which is punishable by up to 21 years in prison,” added RSF.
The Singapore government, it noted, via the Infocomms and Media Development Authority, “has the power to censor all forms of journalistic content”.
“As a result of judicial and financial pressure from the authorities, self-censorship is widespread, including within the alternative independent media,” said RSF, adding: “The situation worsened significantly in 2018, with serious charges being pressed against five independent news websites and at least seven journalists and bloggers”.
“The Singaporean authorities have also started sending journalists emails threatening them with up to 20 years in prison if they don’t remove offensive articles and play by the rules,” charged RSF.
Singapore’s ranking in the World Press Freedom Index for 2019.
Source: Reporters Without Borders/RSF
Meanwhile, RSF noted that across the Causeway, Malaysia has ascended the rankings by 22 places at the 123rd spot this year, with a decrease of 10.67 points from 36.74 points last year.
RSF has cited the political upheaval on 9 May last year as the reason for the improved score.
It noted that while press freedom has received “a breath of fresh air in Malaysia after Prime Minister Najib Razak’s ruling coalition suffered a surprising defeat in the May 2018 general elections”, the Malaysian government now still has, at hand, “a draconian legislative arsenal with which to suppress media freedom, an arsenal that includes the 1948 Sedition Act, the 1972 Official Secrets Act and the 1998 Communications and Multimedia Act”.
“Under these laws, which need a complete overhaul, the authorities have strict control over publication licences and journalists can be sentenced to 20 years in prison on sedition charges. They pose a constant threat to media personnel, who still cannot express themselves with complete freedom, despite all the progress,” cautioned RSF.
Nonetheless, it added that “Mahathir has kept his promise to repeal the Orwellian provisions of the anti-fake news law adopted by the outgoing government”, and that press freedom in Malaysia in general has shown marked improvement within such a short span of time.
“Journalists and media outlets that had been blacklisted, such as the cartoonist Zunar and the Sarawak Report investigative news website, have been able to resume working without fear of harassment.
“The general environment for journalists is much more relaxed, self-censorship has declined dramatically and the print media are now offering a fuller and more balanced range of viewpoints including support for the new ruling coalition led by Prime Minister Mahathir Mohamad, and support for the old ruling coalition, now in opposition,” said RSF.
It added that Malaysia’s improved score points at “the degree to which political change can radically transform the climate for journalists, and how a country’s political ecosystem can directly affect press freedom”.
The Index ranks 180 countries and regions according to the level of freedom available to journalists, and acts as “a snapshot of the media freedom situation based on an evaluation of pluralism, independence of the media, quality of legislative framework and safety of journalists in each country and region”.
The following are the points and colour classifications used in the Index:
From 0 to 15 points: Good situation (white)
From 15.01 to 25 points: Satisfactory situation (yellow)
From 25.01 to 35 points: Problematic situation (orange)
From 35.01 to 55 points: Difficult situation (red)
From 55.01 to 100 points: Very serious situation (black)
However, the Index does not rank public policies “even if governments obviously have a major impact on their country’s ranking”, and it is not indicative of “the quality of journalism in each country or region”.