Business as usual on media restrictions

 [Singapore country report for Working within bounds: Southeast Asia’s Press Freedom Challenges for 2013. Original/print title: Business as usual on Singapore’s restrictions on media]

The stifling media climate in Singapore persists uneasily amidst the backdrop of opposition’s continued electoral gains as the population increasingly voices their discontent.

Although tough laws remain firmly in place, the year saw Singaporeans make further push for a bigger space for self-expression, while the government puts up a relatively tolerant front.

Leash on criticism

The state maintains a leash on criticism of the judiciary and cabinet ministers by threat of legal actions.

In June, the Attorney General threatened contempt of court proceeding against blogger Alex Au unless he apologized for a blog post questioning the conduct of the judiciary. Au apologized and took down the post, but later in July published another article criticizing the judiciary’s apparent immunity via contempt proceedings – triggering a debate between the blogger and the AG’s chambers.Four months earlier Au also removed a reader’s comment against the Foreign Affairs Minister, K. Shanmugam, upon receiving a letter from the latter’s lawyers saying the comment was defamatory.

In the same month Prime Minister Lee Hsien Loong and his brother, Lee Hsien Yang threatened separate defamation suits against Singapore’s leading socio-political website TREmeritus. The editors of TREmeritus decided to apologize and took down a reader’s comment about Hsien Yang and a contributor’s article alleging the PM of nepotism.

The suits came soon after after TREmeritus shed some its anonymity when one of its underground editors revealed himself as local IT entrepreneur Richard Wan. The legal threats illustrate the risks in the online platform, despite it being a thriving and relatively open space.

In August, the Ministry of Information set up the Media Literacy Council, said to play an advisory role to the government concerning cyberspace, and to promote media literacy among the public. But the move was widely feared by netizens to be a tentative step to increased online censorship, after rejecting the state’s earlier call to formulate a code of ethics for online expression.

Out-of-bound markers

The Media Development Authority (MDA) banned a film satire on racial stereotyping after an initial “above-18” rating. The panel reviewers at a pre-release screening found racial references in one of the three shorts making up Sex.Violence.FamilyValues offensive and revised the rating to a ban in October. However the ban was lifted in January 2013 after appeal by the filmmaking team and on condition that the references muted or bleeped. The film is also given the highest age restriction rating of  “21”.

Amongst the mainstream media, areas of tacit self-censorship—through its moniker “Out of Bound” markers, or simply known as the “OB” markers—prevails even as netizens often scrutinize and criticize the practice.

They criticized the mainstream media for perpetuating a largely one-sided coverage of the ruling party by adhering to OB markers and overt bias in favour of the government.

For instance, commentators noted that the mainstream media’s coverage of the strike incidents in November gave prominence to official views and prejudiced the bus drivers. The Straits Times, Singapore’s only English broadsheet, in particular, played up the nationality of the bus drivers and commended the government for its actions, while reminding Singaporeans of the “national ethos” that are opposed to breaking laws.

During the by-election campaign in Hougang in May, Chinese-language broadsheet, Lianhe Zaobao came under fire for being biased toward the establishment. The Workers’ Party said that the paper favored the Deputy Prime Minister and often gave space to anonymous individuals who attacked the party. Despite that, the Workers’ Party retained the seat in Hougang.

These markers received an unprecedented attention through the pointedly-titled memoir “OB Markers: My Straits Times Story” of former Straits Times Editor-in-Chief, Cheong Yip Seng, released in October. He disclosed extensive and persistent interference and intimidation by the PAP government in the broadsheet’s editorial matters, from the politically sensitive to the mundane.

The book sparked some discussions notably for being the most extensive ever expose of the government’s interfering in the media especially during the reign of former PM Lee Kuan Yew and his successor, Goh Chok Tong.

However, a former journalist pointed out that some of the more important incidents had been left out.

Cheong himself observed that the government was aware that the usual tough way with the media—what he dubbed as the “knuckleduster” approach— had become untenable as the reading public become more critical and vocal. He said the “knuckleduster era” had retreated, but was by no means absolutely gone.

It is striking that the memoir was endorsed by Lee Kuan Yew and published by Straits Times’s sister company, raising question whether the OB Markers was simply relaxed in this particular case. Still, journalists in the mainstream media seemed unwilling to test the OB markers after years of operating under it.

More restrictions for foreigners

Foreigners faced the uncompromising action of the state, which did not tolerate any attempts to challenge the boundaries of freedom of expression.

In November, the government arrested, imprisoned and deported migrant bus drivers from China for taking part in a strike over the issue of pay and work conditions. The court also sentenced one bus driver, Bao Feng Shan, to six weeks in prison after he pleaded guilty for taking part in what was described as an illegal strike; while 29 others were deported and their work permits revoked in December.  Under Singapore’s laws, migrant workers are not allowed to form unions and are excluded from joining existing ones.

Ministers and the SMRT, with the support from the National Trade Union Congress and the Union of Transport Workers insisted on the illegality of the strike and used the mainstream media to exhort the public not to take similar actions.

In November, the state deported Australian priest James Minchin, and a month later, Sri Lanka-born activist Brian Senewiratne faced the same fate. The Ministry of Home Affairs said the former had used his previous visit to interfere with domestic politics and denied him entry when he arrived at the Changi Airport. Minchin had questioned the rule of law and the independence of the judiciary, at a Singapore Democratic Party talk show and another event by a local civil society group.

Minchin’s deportation raised eyebrows as to how authorities got to know about what he said in these closed-door events. This incident further strengthened the suspicion that the government had been keeping their activities under surveillance.

Brian Senewiratne, a long-time critic of the Sri Lanka government’s treatment of the ethnic Tamils, said the immigration held him for nearly five hours during his stop in Singapore en route to Malaysia to speak about the situation of Tamil refugees. While in detention the immigration officer prohibited him from communicating with outsiders. The Australian citizen was later later deported.

Civil society getting vocal

In June, hundreds turned out at the state-designated Speakers’ Corner in Hong Lim Park to commemorate the 25th anniversary of the Operation Spectrum, a series of arrests of alleged “Marxist conspirators” under the detention-without-trial law, Internal Security Act.

Held with a permit issued by the authority, the event featured, among others, former ISA detainees Vincent Cheng and Teo Soh Lung, opposition figures Vincent Wijeyasingha and Jeannette Chong Aruldoss, and filmmaker-activist Martyn See, who called for a commission of inquiry into the crackdown and to abolish the law itself.

Earlier in April, the former detainees also started blogging and said they planned to organize a series of activities, including the event at Hong Lim Park, to shed light on the Operations.

In March, MDA cleared the short film Dr. Chia Thye Poh, about the man who spent more than 20 years under the ISA. According to its maker, Martyn See, it is the first film on former ISA detainees ever approved by the MDA, which has banned two of his previous films, Zahari’s 17 Years and Dr. Lim Hock Siew.

The Singapore for Democracy (SFD), of which See was the executive secretary, eventually dissolved in April, citing the restrictive laws as a reason. Despite being registered as a society, SFD members were required to apply for licenses and thereafter investigated as individuals for the alleged breaches of licensing rules when organizing public activities such as marches, film screenings, merchandise selling, and even closed-door activities. The group said it hoped to draw public attention to the challenges faced by non-governmental orgazanisations through the dissolution.

Outlook

For civil society groups, citizen journalists, bloggers and social media users who have taken on to the online space to criticize the government as well as organize activism openly, there is still a steep learning curve in navigating and pushing the boundaries of the laws, while at the same time building trust with their audience.

The balancing acts continue into 2013 but can be expected to get bolder. In February 2013, civil society groups mobilized thousands to voice disapproval at a protest of the government’s plan to increase the size of the population.

Civil society groups, political commentators as well as ruling members also have been looking closely at their nearest neighbor, Malaysia, where the government has faced tumultuous challenges to its political system similar to Singapore.

A change to more democratic governance, adding to the society’s continued dissatisfaction with the ruling party, will be an encouragement to the city-state to relax its restrictions.