Govt restriction on distributing press releases to accredited alternative media – borne out of fear?

Just a fortnight ago, journalist Nicholas Yong of Yahoo! News Singapore shared his experience with receiving the short stick of the end of an “unequal access” to “the most important press releases, speeches and event invites” from government agencies, as a media practitioner from an alternative news outlet.

Receiving press releases hours after mainstream media outlets have broken a story and being told that certain high-profile events are reserved for “local media only” are not “unusual” for accredited alternative news outlets, according to Yong.

“On one occasion, when we requested an advance copy of the National Day Rally speech – probably the most important political speech of the year – we were given the runaround by senior government officials who all had the same excuse: “I don’t have it.”

“Meanwhile, MSM reporters had obtained the speech the day before,” said Yong.

The disparity between the treatment of mainstream media and alternative media is nothing new, as Yong had already drawn attention to the issue two years ago regarding his experience in a cramped Parliament press room where mobile phones were prohibited and speeches were rarely given in advance, contrary to Singapore Press Holdings and Mediacorp reporters who had access to a live feed of Parliamentary proceedings.

“In this day and age, why is the MSM still accorded first-mover advantage over other media outlets, thus enabling it to shape the narrative first?” He questioned.

TOC similarly observed a pattern where government press releases are either not given to licensed alternative media at all, and in addition to that, the full press release is not made available on the relevant ministry or agency’s website at the time of the mainstream media’s reporting.

Take, for example, the the Ministry of Education’s reply to the open letter issued by academics opposing the controversial Protections from Online Falsehoods and Manipulation Act – the MOE’s response was not published on the Ministry’s website, but was instead released exclusively via The Straits Times. A search regarding the Ministry’s response to the letter on the MOE website’s press release page yielded no results, as seen below:

While TOC is not an accredited media outlet unlike Yahoo! News Singapore, it is registered with MICA as a media outlet for monitoring purposes. We have tried applying for accreditation last year, but we were instead informed that TOC would not require press accreditation to report on news in Singapore, as evident below:

The MOE response published on ST was not found on the website given by MICA in the above email.

Why, as Yong has suggested, does the government appear to exercise such preferential treatment towards the mainstream media and places certain restrictions against even alternative media outlets that are registered with the Ministry of Information, Communication and the Arts (MICA) such as Yahoo! News Singapore and even TOC?

Ethicist and professor emeritus at California Polytechnic University Steven Mintz defines four roles of a free press:

  • Taking political leaders to task for their decisions in the name of accountability;
  • Bringing to attention crucial issues that affect the public;
  • Helping the public to make informed decisions regarding policies drafted and set by the government, and;
  • Sparking discussion and action amongst groups in civil society.

Professor of Law at the University of Melbourne’s Law School Andrew T. Kenyon, however, observed in his study Investigating Chilling Effects: News Media and Public Speech in Malaysia, Singapore, and Australia that the media in Singapore and Malaysia have been wielded as “an instrumental project of service to political owners”, as mainstream dailies appear to be owned either “either by investment arms of government political parties or corporate figures closely linked to prominent government politicians”.

The above form of ownership or influence results in what could be observed as self-censorship on the part of the mainstream media, as editors and journalists tread carefully when writing and publishing articles, avoiding overt criticism of said owners and those associated with them, Kenyon argued.

A summary of SPH’s company profile by Nikkei Asian Review indicates that it is strongly linked to the government. SPH’s current chairman Lee Boon Yang, for example, held multiple portfolios as a Cabinet Minister throughout his stint in politics, while CEO Alan Chan is formerly an Administrative Officer in the civil service. TOC have also recently highlighted a pattern among civil servants who have decided to join the mainstream media industry after leaving their positions in the government.

An opinion article by former journalist, editor and current Honorary Senior Fellow in Journalism at the University of Wollongong Eric Loo, published on Malaysiakini in Jun last year, reflects the repercussions of the mainstream media being utilised by the government as a political tool.

Loo wrote regarding the Malaysian mainstream press, in what appears to contain parallels with Singapore’s mainstream media: “The mainstream media practice of giving more news prominence to government sources has long undermined its credibility and betrayed the people of their right to fair, truthful and accurate reporting.

“With the apparent newfound freedom to probe and report since the May 9 election, and possible repeal of repressive media laws by the Harapan government, will we soon witness more critical reporting of public affairs?

“I’m afraid not. For too long have our mainstream journalists deferred to the authorities and accepted politically correct journalism as a legitimate form of professional practice.

“That’s the mainstream journalists’ ethical dilemma – to give more news prominence to the incumbent and hence be seen to be a government mouthpiece, or to lead with the opposition’s agenda and risk the story being rewritten or buried in the inside pages,” Loo observed.

Kristine A. Oswald in her paper Mass Media and the Transformation of American Politics suggested that the media, as the Fourth Estate, “have more power in setting the political agenda than the national government”, as the type of media coverage can either make or break legislative bodies’ chances of successfully passing new laws and policies.

Consequently, the media’s inherent power to shape public acceptance – or a lack thereof – will typically compel the government to exert control over the information it hands over to the media, which may involve shaping in advance the narrative through which the information is expressed, well before the media relays the information to the public, Oswald argued. This is perhaps one of the underlying reasons behind the Singapore government’s apparent “curation” of press releases by granting mainstream media fuller access to such press releases compared to their alternative counterparts.

With the previously discussed barriers imposed against alternative media outlets such as Yahoo! News Singapore – as illustrated by Yong earlier – and even TOC‘s own experience, coupled with the special access received by mainstream media in Singapore, what does it say about the government’s true aim behind carrying out such measures? Are such measures actually driven by a fear of an unfettered alternative media gaining the trust of Singaporeans, more so than the mainstream press?

If such is the case, what does this reveal – or rather confirm – about the government’s approach towards press freedom, whereby it is possible for such “filtering” by the government to be interpreted as abuse of power?

Additionally, what is also the mainstream media’s true role in disseminating information regarding public policies that affect the lives of Singaporeans and other residents? Will Singapore’s mainstream media outlets serve as the most established and trusted sources of information for its society, or will it be relegated to the role of a government mouthpiece primarily aimed at controlling public perception to its own advantage, subsequently diminishing any possible negative impact – and magnifying only the positive impact – of the policies put into place by the government over time?