Once again, Singapore was ranked 151 out 180 in the World Press Freedom Index released by Reporters Without Borders (RSF). The survey ranks countries on press freedom which is assessed on several levels including media independence, legislative framework, abuses against the media/reporters, infrastructure and more. Singapore has consistently ranked poorly on this index for the past few years, this time ranking lower than countries like Venezuela and Afghanistan.
Back in 2008 when the year’s index was released and Singapore was ranked 144, Law and Home Affairs Minister K Shanmugam said that it “struck him as quite absurd and divorced from reality”, adding that American media portrays Singapore as “a repressive, state that controls the people’s thoughts” and “unfairly target the press”.
Moving onward to 2017 when the year’s index was released and Singapore is ranked 151, Mr Shanmugam said of Singapore’s dismal ranking that surveys that rank countries on press freedom, religious intolerance and the life should be taken with a grain of sale. He said that these reports don’t always reflect the lived experiences of people in those countries.
He added that the reason some international studies rank Singapore poorly while others rank it highly is because of the methodology used an the political objectives that researchers are helping to push.
During a debate on the motion to strengthen the country’s resolve to remain united against the threat of terrorism (3 Oct 2017), Mr Shanmugam said that he is usually ‘careful’ of such studies, adding that “…we have to be discerning about these rankings and how they are done and the political objectives behind them. Sometimes, ignore them, when they are patently false and not hold them up as a mantra.”
Referring specifically to RSF ranking, he noted how Singapore was rated below Guinea, Sudan, and Pakistan among others even though people in Guinea were facing atrocities like being gunned down by the brutal military junta.
He added, “Gambia, where journalists were detained, media outlets shut down, Internet disconnected, international phone calls banned last year; South Sudan, where it was described as having one of the world’s most serious refugee crisis, suffering the effects of a devastating civil war. Afghanistan is ranked ahead of us. Pakistan is ranked ahead of us. I would invite RSF to please go there.”
The thing is though, the RSF index on press freedom takes into account more than how safe journalists are. Sure, that’s one aspect of it but they also look at how factors such as whether or not journalists are able to carry out their work without interference or fear of intimidation or retribution from the establishment.
So while the Law Minister used the example of war torn countries being ranked much higher in press freedom than Singapore, other non-warring countries like China which don’t exactly kill their journalists still ranks lower than Singapore on RSF’s index. Why? Because China enforces overreaching measures to curtail freedom of expression and reporting. The media is tightly controlled by the government, which naturally limits press freedom.
When it comes to Singapore, various laws act to curtail press freedom including laws which have been passed like the Protection from Harassment Act and laws which have recently been proposed such as the Protection from Online Falsehoods and Manipulation Act (POFMA).
These laws allow the administration to choke of funding and support for independent press outlets like TOC and others, leading to them shutting down. Consequently, fewer journalists/reports/media outlets are free to say what they feel is necessary for fear of being treated the same way.
The provisions of the proposed POFMA – which will almost certainly be passed into law – serves to exemplify the government’s discontent with publications that are out o their control. The law gives the government the power it needs to shut down dissenting platforms for good. This is the kind of power it has never had before.
So when you really examine all the factors necessary to maintain freedom of the press, it’s no surprise Singapore consistently ends up very low on the ranking.