Dark side of a ‘light touch’

By Hah Foong Lian

IT’S NO secret that the Singaporean government has an iron grip on the mainstream media, but when it comes to weblogs or blogs, it says it is keeping a “light touch”.

Yet far from being pleased, Singaporean bloggers and other devoted Netizens say this stance has made them all the more wary since they are unable to tell where the “out-of-bound markers” are.

“Only when you hit the mines (do) you know where they are,” says Colin Goh of talkingcock.com, grousing about what he says are vague and unclear rules for blogging in the city state. “But nobody is going to tell you where they are.”

In theory, of course, cyberspace is no-holds-barred territory anywhere on the planet, and bloggers are free to say whatever they want. In practice, however, bloggers in Singapore and elsewhere can and have been subject to local laws, which vary in terms of liability and severity of punishment.

So far thus in Singapore, three young bloggers have been charged and found guilty of violating the Sedition Act; all three allegedly made racist remarks – which are apparently covered by the Sedition Act — in their respective blogs. In 2005, one of the accused bloggers received a month-long jail sentence, the second was jailed for a day and fined S$1,000, while the third (a 17-year-old) was sentenced to two years of probation and made to see a counselor.

Three years earlier, activist Zulfikar Mohamad Shariff was also investigated after a criminal defamation report was filed against him. Zulfikar, who ran the blog fateha.com, fled Singapore to escape what he described as “political persecution”; he has since been based in Australia. According to several media reports, he believes the complaint against him was prompted by blog posts he made that criticised the appointment of Ho Ching, wife of present Prime Minister Lee Hsien Loong (and therefore daughter-in-law of Minister Mentor Lee Kuan Yew), as chairperson of the state-owned Temasek Holding.

 A state of self-censorship

Observers say Zulfikar is probably right, and point out that the government is known to be quick in going after those who criticise the Lee family and the ruling People’s Action Party (PAP). This common knowledge, they say, is reflected in the self-censorship Singaporeans observe especially in public places and in mass media.

Filmmaker Martyn See admits as much in saying that he makes sure his blog Singaporerebel.blogspot.com will not attract any lawsuits.

“The fact that many bloggers post their views anonymously show that there is fear of being prosecuted when they express their opinions particularly on political matters,” he says, adding, “If you want to take on the government and speak freely about certain taboo topics like the Lee family, race and religion, you better have an exit plan.”

Even the quite outspoken Alex Au of yawningbread.com says that his years of writing experience and political observation has served him well in sharpening his sense of what is acceptable to authorities. “For me, I would say I am aware of certain boundaries that should not be crossed,” he says. “I (have) never gotten in trouble in my 10 years (of blogging).”

But he adds, “I usually don’t pull my punches. It is a matter of how you say it.”

Obviously, though, many bloggers are not professional writers who have mastered the art of playing around with words. For instance, Goh, who is a filmmaker like See, confesses that he and his fellow talkingcock founders were “terrified” when their blog began attracting the attention of Singaporean authorities.

Begun in New York in 2000, talkingcock.com was actually meant as a means for Singaporeans overseas to send jokes to each other. Somehow, though, says Goh, the blog became the subject of debates in parliament in 2006, with legislators arguing over whether or not to gazette the blog as a political website.

“I had to go public with my identity,” says Goh a year later. “The rest of my partners are still scared. It really was quite an anxious time (for us), especially with our history of restriction.” He says that to convince authorities that the blog was neither political nor trying to sway the results in the elections, he and his partners decided to post a disclaimer on the blog, advising readers not to use whatever was in talkingcock as basis for their votes.

A ‘small’ world

Singaporean bloggers have also learned that being thousands of miles away from their country does not necessarily mean they are safe from the hectoring of authorities back home. In 2005, Chen Jiahao, a chemistry graduate student in a U.S. university, was warned by Singapore’s Agency for Science, Techology, and Research (A*Star) Chairman Philip Yeo that some of his posts in his blog could be the subject of “legal action”. In emails to Chen, the A*Star head not only demanded that these posts, which allegedly defamed the agency and Yeo himself, be deleted, but also insisted that the former Singaporean state scholar apologise.

Chen later said that he tried to ask Yeo to be more specific, but the official only repeated his demands. In the end, Chen apologised – and shut down his blog altogether. In a letter to a Singaporean newscaster, he explained that the matter had caught him while he was preparing to take semestral examinations and therefore had no time to “sift through 400-odd posts” and figure out which one had so offended Yeo. “It was impossible,” Chen wrote, “to satisfy such vague demands except by taking the entire blog down altogether.”

The episode naturally left the Singaporean blogosphere aghast. One lawyer even told this writer two years later that Chen’s case could be seen as an example of how the PAP could “instill fear and keep the online community in check”.

At the height of the controversy, A*Star had sought to defend itself by finally publishing the specific posts that Yeo had considered defamatory. In an official statement, it said Chen had made “damaging statements” about the agency “that should not be allowed to pass for the truth. To do so will perpetuate lingering misperceptions about the real issue”.

Yet as Chen himself pointed out in his letter to a Singaporean newscaster, Yeo could have well rebutted him point by point in the blog. Chen also wrote, “I spoke out because as a taxpayer and citizen, I cared enough about the policies at hand to make reasoned opinions about them, and in particular to point out what I considered to be possibly counterproductive side effects.”

“I considered remarks made by persons such as Dr. Vivian Balakrishnan (community development, youth, and sports minister) and (Minister Mentor) Lee Kuan Yew earlier this year, urging young Singaporeans to speak out, as encouragement to do so,” he continued. “As a young Singaporean who tried to speak out and received such an intimidating response, I am disappointed and discouraged that Mr. Yeo had not attempted to correct any possible misconceptions that I may have had over the interpretation of publicly available information, deciding instead to threaten to sue me for defamation. I cannot say that such actions have promoted the cause of getting young Singaporeans to speak out.”

Two sets of standards?

Still, there are those who say that Singaporean authorities remain relatively lenient on cybermedia compared to how it treats the mainstream media. A case in point, they say, is that of journalist/blogger Lee Kin Mun, who lost his column in a local newspaper after authorities took offence with a humorous but biting piece that he did regarding price hikes. Yet the government sat on its hands while the same piece continued to circulate within the Singaporean cybercommunity; Lee’s blog also escaped the state’s ire.

Lee, who uses the pseudonym Mr. Brown, says that he got away lightly since he did not wind up behind bars and was even spared getting hauled off for questioning. A popular blogger, he believes he got into trouble because the piece appeared in the mainstream media, which is considered as a “power centre”.

“I did a crossover from Internet to offline, and it was a no-no,” he says. “Whether that is correct or not is debatable.”

Nanyang Technology University journalism lecturer Dr. Cherian George shares Lee’s view, noting, “(The government) has one set of standards for online (where it) basically lets anything go, but is strict on the mainstream media.”

“What happened to Mr. Brown is a signal to the editor that newspapers cannot appear like a blog,” he adds.

It’s a tactic that some observers say makes the government appear tolerant of dissenting views – so long as these are made in cyberspace, which seems to be seen by authorities as still the lair of fringe groups and therefore relatively harmless.

In a particularly n astute 2007 article for AsiaTimes Online, yawningbread’s Au also observed that the government could hardly be expected to go after “numerous sites” since each could “pop up again anonymously after being shut down”.

“As the election period demonstrated,” he wrote, “there is already widespread discontent with the government among political commentators on the Web, and this would only be inflamed by any official attempt at a crackdown.”

“But,” said Au, “these calculations can change over time, as has been proved over history. Should an issue become critical enough for the government, such as the growing disparity between the rich and the poor, it may be worth the political price to invoke draconian regulations or file suits against a handful of consistently critical blogs. Likewise, should any blog get a large readership, the government could likewise be tempted to intervene.”

The Sintercom saga

Which was exactly what happened with the popular website Sintercom (Singapore Internet Community) in 2001. By then already in existence for more than half a decade, Sintercom was asked to register with the Singapore Broadcasting Authority (SBA) right before the general elections that year. Among the registration requirements was that editors or publishers of a political or religious website had to accept full responsibility for its contents, including those in discussion groups.

Sintercom at the time had already built a reputation for being a venue for open, public discussion of current affairs and national issues, including the state of human rights in Singapore. As the site’s founder, Tan Chong Kee, later told the Computer Times, “Here in Singapore, we don’t say many things because we are afraid that someone’s listening. We’re always looking over our shoulders when we say something sensitive. But the moment we know it’s okay to do so, we speak up. The Internet gives users that freedom through anonymity. Sintercom was created to let people say ‘that’s what I think’.”

But there was now the SBA, telling Tan that he had to take responsibility for whatever was said on the site. Tan told the Times, “SBA’s Code of Practice has clauses like ‘against the public interest, public order or national harmony’ and ‘offends against good taste or decency’. I feel a lot of content in Sintercom can already be interpreted as unacceptable. If I put up similar content in future, I may get into trouble.”

So Tan sent in previously published content to the SBA “for clearance, so there can be some certainty to what the law says”. Its reply, however, was that Internet content providers had to exercise their own judgement and ensure compliance to the SBA’s Code.

Instead of registering with the SBA, Tan and his partners chose to close down the site. But it was soon reincarnated as newsintercom.org, with the U.S.-based Geocities service acting as its host.

Interestingly enough, its staff and editors were kept anonymous, unlike in Sintercom, where Tan and his partners were all named. It also made it a point to say in its introduction to its visitors, “This site will never register with the SBA. Just would like to mention that.”

 

[Hah Foong Lian is an assistant editor at the Ipoh branch of the Star Publications, the best-selling English daily in Malaysia. This article was produced under the 2007 SEAPA Journalism Fellowship.]

 

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