Cherian George criticises Straits Times for supporting the government’s move in attacking independent journalists in Singapore

Professor Cherian George, a prominent professor of Media Studies and former member of the Media Literacy Council, took to his Twitter on Friday (27 September) to criticise the Straits Times (ST) for standing behind the government in attacking independent journalists in Singapore.

“The Straits Times is supporting the #Singapore government’s attack on independent journalists, not for lack of professional ability but for want of ethical application,” the author and ex-journalist at ST wrote in his tweet.

He was referring to the latest comment by Home Affairs and Law Minister K Shanmugam on Wednesday (25 September) about co-founder and editor-in-chief of New Naratif Kirsten Han, stating that she writes critical articles of Singapore but her site is heavily funded by a foreign foundation and receives foreign contributions, which could be used as tools to advance foreign interests.

Mr Shanmugam also said that Ms Han told in a video before that Singapore has failed, compared with Hong Kong, as people don’t take matters to the street to march, “and she wants to change that, through classes run by New Naratif”.

Additionally, he also pointed out that Ms Han along with her co-founder of New Naratif and historian Thum Ping Tjin and other individuals like political dissident Tan Wah Piow, graphic novelist Sonny Liew and civil-rights activist Jolovan Wham met Malaysian Prime Minister Mahathir Mohamad last month to urge him to bring democracy to Singapore and other countries.

The Minister mentioned this while speaking at a one-day conference on Foreign Interference Tactics and Countermeasures organised by the S. Rajaratnam School of International Studies, Nanyang Technological University.

Ms Han’s response

Following Mr Shanmugam’s remarks, Ms Han penned her response to this in an article titled “On accusations and gaslighting”, written in her blog on 26 September.

Responding to Mr Shanmugam’s accusation that New Naratif receives foreign funding which could be used to advance foreign influence, Ms Han said that the site is supported by membership, grants and donations.

“We’ve received foreign grant money, but we received it following applications through the proper channels, and we don’t take money if the funder wants to influence or control our editorial or operational decisions,” she added.

“New Naratif also operates with remarkable transparency: PJ and I are highly accessible, be it through email or regular open meetings, online or off. We also publish regular transparency reports where we openly talk about our achievements and challenges, and share full financial statements so people can see what money we have and how we spent it,” she explained.

“We operate far more transparently and with more accountability than our accusers, and we’ve worked with freelancers across Southeast Asia to produce high quality work that I’m confident speaks for itself.”

As for her opinion that Singaporeans have failed to bring issues to the street, Ms Han said that the information was “taken completely out of context” as she said it in a speech at a forum on activism, civil disobedience and social movements in November 2016.

“But it’d been taken completely out of context: in my speech, I’d said that it would appear as if Singapore had failed compared to Hong Kong if out metric of success was to see 500,00 people on the streets. But my point was that ‘500,000 people on the street’ is not a useful KP to use in measuring the strength and maturity of a country’s civil society – the communities, the networks, and the solidarity between them are far more important,” she noted.

She continued, “The are the things that you need regardless of whether you have 500,000 people on the streets to protests or not. If there are democratic processes that work, then great, there’s no need for half a million people to protest. Problem solved. But you’re still going to need a mature and resilient civil society to be part of a functioning democracy.”

Upon reading Ms Han’s counter response to Mr Shanmugam, ST published a follow-up story highlighting this in an article titled “New Naratif co-founder Kirsten Han responds to Shamugam’s remark on foreign interference”.

Prof George’s issue with ST’s follow-up article

However, Prof George has problems on how the article was written. In his tweet, he attached two images explaining how ST’s article was “misinformation masterclass” in helping the government attack independent journalist.

The first issue he had was with the headline itself, as he felt that it suggested that it was providing balanced view from both sides of the story. But in reality, ST didn’t as its previous article only stated Mr Shanmugam’s point of view of independent journalists without actually getting these accused individuals to respond to his accusations.

“After running your political masters’ original allegations in a more prominent story (without soliciting responses from the individuals being attacked), run this follow-up story with a headline that suggests you’re finally giving the other point of view,” Prof George said.

If that’s not all, Prof George also noted that the third paragraph of the article (talking about Ms Han’s opinion that Singapore has failed compared to Hong Kong in bringing people to march in the streets) repeats false news, when it should actually state the most important point that Ms Han raised in her blog post – rebutting Mr Shanmugam’s claims.

“Repeats a falsehood high up in the story without qualification – despite knowing that’s how ‘corrections’ help perpetuate fake news. Avoid doing the responsible (and newsier) thing of starting the sentence with ‘Ms Han refuted the minister’s claim that..’”, he wrote.

If that’s not all, ST only explained about how Mr Shanmugam actually took Ms Han’s information out of context from a speech she made in 2016, in the ninth paragraph of the article.

“After repeating your political masters’ falsified claim without qualification in paragraph 3, bury the facts in paragraph 9 – despite this being the news,” he said.

He also added that ST didn’t bother to quote Ms Han where she explained in her blog post that PAP MP Seah Kian Peng had initially taken Mr Thum’s comment about Singapore, Malaya and Malaysia out of context and blew it out of proposition, which Mr Shanmugam highlighted again in his latest speech.

“Repeat more of your political masters’ claims – this time without bothering to quote Hans response from her blog, which was ostensibly the reason for running this news story in the first place,” Prof George said.

He added sarcastically, “Two days later, declare ‘World News Day’ in honour of journalism’s sacred mission to fight fake news.”

Despite Singapore government’s move to combat fake news, especially with the passing of the controversial Protection from Online Falsehood and Manipulation Act (POFMA) recently, the city-state still scores poorly in terms of press freedom.

According to the latest World Press Freedom Index 2019, Singapore is currently ranked 151st out of 180 countries, behind Russia (149th) and Bangladesh (150th).