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Kirsten Han raises concerns over RISJ’s 2023 Digital News Report and its lack of context about Singapore’s media landscape

Singaporean freelance journalist and activist, Kirsten Han, took to Twitter this past Thursday to express her concerns about the portrayal of Singapore’s media landscape in the 2023 Digital News Report.

Her critique followed Nobel laureate Maria Ressa’s criticism of the annual report by the Reuters Institute for the Study of Journalism (RISJ).

The 2023 report, released on Wednesday, June 14, surveyed over 93,000 online news consumers across 46 markets. It aimed to provide an overview of the changing media landscapes worldwide.

Ressa, the co-founder of the Philippines-based news site Rappler, publicly criticized the report’s methodologies, particularly for their potential harmful impact on independent media organizations, especially in the global south.

In an interview with The Guardian, Ressa stated, “Government officials were quoting Oxford University’s Reuters Institute for the Study of Journalism to attack us.”

In response to Ressa’s comments in The Guardian, Rasmus Kleis Nielsen, the director of the RISJ, issued a statement, part of which read: “We are sorry that our work has been abused to attack her and her colleagues, and we are sorry to hear she has told The Guardian that she thinks our work and our methodology risks undermining media in the global south.”

Ressa replied on Twitter, saying, “It’s not enough to be sorry when your work is used to attack journalists in ‘inconvenient’ countries. Journalism research has no integrity if it endangers journalists at risk.”

Echoing Ressa’s concerns on Twitter, Han initiated a detailed thread examining sections of the report.

Han, the Managing Editor of the Mekong Review, expressed apprehension about the report misleading readers into thinking Singapore is a safe haven for journalists, given its findings of very low public criticism of the news media in the country.

Referring to the charts in the section “proportion of those that have heard people criticising journalists or the news media that have heard criticism from each market”, Han noted that people come across very little criticism of the news media in Singapore, even from politicians.

“To a layperson who isn’t familiar with the context, this could be interpreted as SG being a safe place where journalists aren’t attacked for our work,” she said.

Han, who also runs a weekly newspaper, “We, The Citizen“, pointed out that “Public criticism of the media and of journalists is low in SG because the politicians in power have other means of keeping the media in check. The mainstream media is already on their side, so there’s no need to go on public offensives.”

She criticized the Singapore section of the report for failing to adequately capture the political context and the press freedom situation.

Han also took issue with its depiction of The Online Citizen Asia (TOC), an independent news website formerly based in Singapore and now operating in Taiwan.

“TOC might have its problems, but this paragraph fails to reflect the hugely hostile environment in which its sole editor, Terry Xu, has had to operate. It makes it sound like Terry moved to Taiwan to operate TOC from outside because he didn’t want to be transparent about backers.”

“The reasons for TOC’s suspension are also not as simple as ‘refusing to declare its funding sources’, although that’s the narrative the government propagates.”

On October 15, 2021, TOC’s license was revoked by the Infocomm Media Development Authority (IMDA) after Xu failed to comply with demands to disclose the details of the site’s subscribers, who IMDA deemed as donors.

Han highlighted the case of TOC’s sole editor, Terry Xu, who faced multiple investigations, ranging from contempt of court to criminal defamation.

She argued that the RISJ, despite striving to present the Digital News Report as neutrally as possible, failed to provide sufficient political context.

She questioned, “Why is the Singapore page like this? It doesn’t give enough information on the political context and press freedom situation, but there are three paragraphs on TikTok, including a paragraph providing a bio for TikTok CEO Chew Shou Zi. What are people unfamiliar with Singapore meant to learn?”

For context, Reporters Without Borders ranked Singapore 129th out of 180 countries and territories with a score of 47.88 in its 2023 ranking.

Despite being its highest rank in the past five years, press freedom in the country is described by the organization as “almost non-existent.”

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