Still in the black, Singapore has dropped further in the World Press Freedom Index this year from 158 to 160, the worst it has ever been.
Reporters Without Borders (RSF) notes that despite the self-imposed label as “Switzerland of the East”, Singapore doesn’t fall far short of China in terms of suppressing media freedom.
While the news of Singapore’s slip in the ranks of such an Index is cause enough for concern, what’s worse is the lack of mainstream media coverage of this regression.
The Straits Times merely published an AFP-sourced report on the ranking which doesn’t mention Singapore at all. The report noted that journalism was at least partly blocked in nearly three quarters of the 180 countries surveyed, and mentioned that many governments have used the COVID-19 pandemic to further repress freedom of the press.
The article also highlighted the top 10 countries and worst 10 countries on the Index, again conveniently leaving out Singapore, which lies just within the worst 20 countries.
The question here really is why ST did not make the effort writing its own article about the rankings, given Singapore’s dismal placing. Not only that, neither TODAYonline and Channel NewsAsia reported on Singapore’s drop to 160 on the Press Freedom Index this year either.
These three sites are arguably the biggest mainstream English news sites in Singapore with a wider reach than most other outlets. How could they not have reported on Singapore’s placement on the Press Freedom Index?
This just proves the point made by RSF in its analysis of the media landscape in Singapore that the government’s political power on press freedom is coupled with an “economic straightjacket”, creating an environment that stifles news media.
RSF noted how all of Singapore’s print and broadcast media is controlled by two groups, state-owned MediaCorp and Singapore Press Holdings (SPH) which is privately-owned by has government appointed leaders.
As you may well know, TODAYonline and Channel NewsAsia are part of MediaCorp while The Straits Times is a publication of SPH.
Singapore’s response over the years to the Press Freedom Index
When the Press Freedom Index was first introduced in 2008, Singapore debuted at a worrying 144. It has continued a steady decline since then, thanks to this stifling media landscape.
Back in 2008, Law and Home Affairs Minister K Shanmugan said that Singapore’s ranking on the Index “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”.
When Singapore dropped to 151 in 2017, Mr Shanmugam said that Singapore’s dismal ranking should be taken with a grain of salt, adding that these reports don’t always reflect the lived experiences of people in the countries surveyed.
He also said 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.
Speaking on the issue in Parliament that year, Mr Shanmugan noted how Singapore was ranked lower than countries like Guinea, Sudan, and Pakistan where atrocities are taking place.
He said, “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.”
What Mr Shanmugam didn’t mention, however, was that the RSF takes into account not just the safety of journalist but also factors such as the ability of journalists to carry out their work without interference of fear of intimidation or retribution from the establishment.
In fact, China is ranked much lower than Singapore on the index, even though they don’t exactly kill journalists either. This is because China is infamous for its government overreach to curtail freedom of expression and reporting. The media is tightly controlled there, which naturally limits press freedom.
Singapore’s “disregard for basic principles of press freedom”
When it comes to Singapore, various laws act to curtail press freedom including, but not limited to, Newspaper and Printing Presses Act, the Broadcasting Act, Protection from Harassment Act (POHA) and the Protection from Online Falsehoods and Manipulation Act (POFMA).
Over the years, the government “is always quick to sue critical journalists, apply pressure to make them unemployable, or even force them to leave the country,” said RSF. It added that defamation suits are common and may sometimes be accompanied by a sedition charge that is punishable by up to 21 years in prison.
In 2020, RSF sent its evaluation of the situation in Singapore to the UN Human Rights Council in Geneva, ahead of Singapore’s Universal Periodic Review (UPR).
“RSF’s evaluation deplores the Singaporean government’s complete disregard for the basic principles of press freedom,” said the organisation in a statement on its website last year.
The lack of coverage now by local mainstream news outlets about Singapore’s further drop in the Press Freedom Index just serves to further strengthen the RSF’s assertion about how stifling the media landscape is here.
Another example is the lack of coverage by ST, CNA, and TODAY of the successful fundraising campaigns by blogger and activists Roy Ngerng and another blogger, Leong Sze Hian who were both sued by Prime Minister Lee Hsien Loong in separate cases.
Mr Ngerng, who currently resides in Taiwan, met his fundraising target for damages to be paid to PM Lee after losing a libel suit brought by the latter against him. He managed to raise the full sum of S$144,000 with the support of over 2,000 individuals in just eight days.
He noted earlier that the crowdfunding movements was being done without any coverage from mainstream media.
His campaign followed the success of veteran blogger and financial adviser Leong Sze Hian, who managed to raise over S$133,000 over 11 days from over 2,000 individuals to pay PM Lee for defamation damages. Mr Leong also managed his fundraising campaign without coverage from mainstream media.
Given how tightly controlled the media landscape is in Singapore, it is unsurprising that mainstream news decided not to pick up these stories.