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by Nabilah Husna

Tomorrow is UN’s World Press Freedom Day. I want to believe that that announcement would cause a sting of self-awareness among most media consumers in Singapore. But I fear that might be a bit too hopeful.

Maybe because ‘press freedom’ doesn’t hit quite the right note in a chorus of other important social issues that are, rightly so, being raised daily and consistently: the right to live free from violence; labour rights; the right to safe and affordable housing; the right to economic security, among others.

In many ways, we have been taught to strain social justice through a sieve and produce what we can all collectively decide are “bread-and-butter” issues — things that affect most of the population on a day-to-day basis.

It’s a good time as any to reiterate how all human rights issues tether on whether people, particularly journalists, can shed light on them, and the ease of access members of society have to accurate information and diverse perspectives.

Human rights and press freedom

Jolene Tan, powerhouse human rights advocate (left) and me, on a good hair day (right).

Without press freedom, very little can be achieved to advance social justice in general. The causes we fight for and the ability for our press to amplify their messages are intertwined.

In Singapore, the proposed Protection from Online Falsehoods and Manipulation Act (POFMA) is the latest manifestation of an ever-growing curtailment of an already withered press scene. The Bill allows for Ministers to issue take-down orders for information that it deems false — too broadly defined as a statement of fact that is “false or misleading, whether wholly or in part, and whether on its own or in the context in which it appears”).

There have been streams of outrage from international rights groups, NMPs, academics, media practitioners and other civil society and arts groups.

In addressing the pushback, the government stated that the Bill will “not affect most Singaporeans”. But this is flimsy at best: many other laws — like sedition and defamation laws — don’t affect most Singaporeans, either, though their narrow reach doesn’t mean they are free from broad, rippling societal effects. Lack of press freedom may leave a sour taste in the mouths of those working in the field of journalism, but its bitter consequences touch every single one of us.

Our ability to gather perspectives, think critically, be politically educated, debate, mobilise ourselves, practice informed democracy and form knowledge relies on the kind of information we are given. The tools with which we can form opinions, the ideas we espouse and the values we uphold depend on what we hold dearly as truth — and what we are assured is false.

Zooming out on POFMA

POFMA arrives on the back of an already stifled social and political environment, where freedom of information is not in place, where we have tough sedition and defamation laws and an Administration of Justice (Protection) Act most recently used against activist Jolovan Wham. Historically we’ve seen too many examples of how these laws can limit free speech.

We form opinions based on what we don’t know as much as what we know. In laying the foundation of our society’s values, in distinguishing truth from malicious fiction, we need access to information. Our media remains one of the greatest sources of this.

How can we, for instance, know about the prevalence of workplace discrimination against Muslim women who wear the tudung when there are no substantive data or reports about it in our local media? The law on racial and religious insult, which we have been particularly trigger-happy with, is often used as a scapegoat whenever any attempt at discourse on race and religion is made. But openly talking about racial discrimination, representation or prejudice is not the same as inciting hate speech. How do we openly challenge racial inequality when we’ve seen how concerns raised pertaining to race are systematically silenced and finger-wagged at?

How do we start to unpack the human rights violations faced by domestic workers, when one research paper is dismissed as “fake news” because it doesn’t hold up against a state-organised study? When the Media Development Authority prohibits “promotion” of homosexuality on TV and radio, thereby inevitably rendering invisible LGBTQ people at best, demonising them at worst, how do we use evidence-based data to counter statements from Ministers who claim that LGBTQ people face no discrimination?

Can we adequately sound the alarm on social injustices, when we have to measure lived experiences of people, in all its fragmented inconsistencies, against the interests, goals and narratives of the state?

Some NGOs, including gender equality group AWARE, rely on alliances from within parliament to raise critical questions and request for data from the government. This is an important and occasionally fruitful tactic, but leaning on one or two brave voices in our government seems like a less than sustainable solution to change-making. A free press would allow journalists to delve into investigation without fear of reprisal for straying away from state-approved angles.

Nothing to fear

But don’t need to worry, said Education Minister Ong Ye Kung in, I imagine, the tone of a taxi uncle assuring you he can get from Hougang to Raffles in under 10 minutes, “(POFMA) does not target opinions, criticisms, satire or parody.”

Not everyone is all that concerned about POFMA and the powers it will grant Ministers to determine what is a “false statement of fact”. Support for the legislation pepper some parts of social media: the comments section of Minister K Shanmugam’s Facebook posts relating to the Bill will show you many commending the move. The common sentiment is that only those who spread “fake news” will be afraid of the new law.

It’s a strange set-up, where many citizens are not just willing to support broad, punitive laws, but have naturalised a deferment to people in power to decide for them what is fact.

This is not an unhappy accident, of course, just the result of decades of engineering — a Newspaper and Printing Presses Act and a Broadcasting Act that controls ownership, funding and distribution of media; independent media platforms and journalists struggling against state regulations that seem adamant on silencing alternative voices.

Tomorrow is World Press Freedom Day.

I’m reminded of when I was a bright-eyed student of communications and media ten years ago, and among classmates who said, “I want to be a journalist. I want to change our media system from within.” But if any of them ended up in traditional media, it’s more likely that they have had to build a home out of tangled red tape.

My wish for the state of our press is an activist’s wet dream. We need to establish an unyielding, diverse press institute for journalism to thrive without fear, OB markers and self-censorship.

We need our ability to decide between ‘fact’ and ‘fake’ to be honed through normalising research, media literacy and critical thinking. Media and technology are integral to democracy. Yes, malicious fake news is a problem. But a more sustainable solution to counter it is a more focused and sharp ‘fake news’ Bill, rather than a broad sweeping one that could be easily abused. At the same time, deeper public education could help to address misconceptions, improve knowledge on how our political institutions operate, and promote transparency and accountability. This can happen in many ways — including starting conversations on democracy from a young age in school, or conducting (unbiased) media literacy campaigns, or encouraging, rather than shutting down, independent efforts at political education.

To advance the fight for human rights, we need to free our press, and go back to the basics: by recognising a free press as an institution meant to hold our bread-and-butter issues up — lest we end up on the floor picking up the crumbs we are left with.

What to do about POFMA?

  • Read the Bill. The Bill is being tabled for a second reading on 6 May.
  • Write an email to your Member of Parliament to make your concerns known.
  • Share the FAQs that New Naratif put together about the Bill with your friends and family.

This was first published on Nadilah’s Medium website and reproduced with permission.

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