Singapore media: Self-censorship or else

Singapore filmmaker Martyn See said that the only way to see the sincerity of his country’s government in its 2008 promise to relax a long-standing ban on political films was to test the new policy.

Soon after Singapore Prime Minister Lee Hsien Loong announced the need to review a ban that was  “no longer sensible”, See set about to reapply documentaries that had been prohibited from public screening. What he got in 2009 was a bag of mixed, confounding signals.

On the one hand, “Singapore Rebel”, a documentary on Singapore Democratic Party leader Chee Soon Juan and a series of bruising campaigns for free speech that left the oppositionist bankrupted in the courts, had a ban on its screening lifted.

On the other hand, the ban on another of See’s films, “Zahari’s 17 Years”, which tackles the case of Said Zahari who was detained from 1963 to 1979 under Singapore’s Internal Security Act, stays. The film was the first to be banned under section 35(1) of the Films Act, which empowers the government to order a ban if the work is deemed detrimental to public interest. In turning down See’s request for a reconsideration, government officials said the film gives a “distorted and misleading portrayal’ of Said’s arrest and detention under the Internal Security Act.

Moreover, another film that See wanted considered under the Prime Minister’s promise to be more sensible with restrictions on political films, Seelan Palay’s “One Nation Under Lee”, was simply left hanging, and therefore is still effectively banned from public viewing. See says officials refused to classify “One Nation Under Lee” for, among other reasons, containing scenes from “Zahari’s 17 Years”.

The experience with Singapore’s Films Act in 2009, in the context of Lee Hsien Loong’s promises in 2008, was symptomatic of the general free expression environment in Singapore last year, and foreshadows what may be expected in 2010. That is, more of the same from a city-state that, save for an attempt at signaling a lighter touch two years ago, has never been apologetic about its still low prioritization of (and regard for) free expression, press freedom, and independent media.

Perhaps worse, the actions of Singapore in 2009 betray how the government in reality last year took “one step forward, and two steps back”, as some critics put it, in its promise to allow more space for free, open discussions in the city state. Other critics also noted that the Films Act still allows authorities to ban works that “distort” the political picture, a vague phrase that can too easily shelve films either too critical of the government and/or too sympathetic to oppositionists. Filming of political rallies is still deemed a violation of the same law which can net offenders a maximum fine of S$100,000 ($73,000) or a two-year prison term.

Reality bites
There were other signals towards a more democratic Singapore in 2009 that need to be qualified by actual experience and pragmatic considerations. Again in keeping with the Prime Minister’s promises in 2008, the year 2009 saw Singapore’s “Speakers’ Corner” officially opened to protests and demonstrations and the use of microphones. The Films Act amendments now allow for political parties to make election platform videos. And the Public Order Act now exempts all social and cultural public assemblies.

In truth, however, the Films Act amendment actually further restricts parameters for political films, See says. It reminds that political films still cannot contain scenes of “dramatisation”. Nor are animation, “reality TV content”, or scenes of “illegal activity” (which could perhaps mean anything from jaywalking to government critics unwittingly flirting with seditious commentary) allowed to be included. Meanwhile, in April, Singapore revised the Public Order Act so that the minimum number of people constituting an illegal assembly need no longer be an outdoor mass of five. Now an assembly of one can be illegal. Critics also note that the new policies now allow police to seize cameras in the vicinity of such illegal protests.

In this light, critics say that even the new, more accommodating rules for Singapore’s lone Speaker’s Corner could actually be deceiving, and potentially more chilling.

Still Singapore
For everything the Prime Minister promised on Singapore’s National Day Celebrations in 2008, meanwhile, nothing much changed in the legal environment governing all forms of media, and journalist of any platform or nationality, in 2009. These will continue to exert the greatest pressure on writers, filmmakers, politicians, and anyone with any advocacy in Singapore in 2010: the country’s defamation law, the Printing Press Act, the Newspapers and Printing Presses Act, the Undesirable Publications Act, Broadcasting Act, and of course, the Internal Security Act, Films Act, and Official Secrets Act.

The net result of all of the above is that, although the country has 10 newspapers and six magazines, three broadcasting companies that oversee several TV and radio stations, 15 satellite broadcasters and a cable TV provider, they will all remain dominated and defined by the government, and dominated by the government-owned Singapore Press Holdings and Mediacorp which run broadcasting operations.

All publications in the city state are required to have a government license. The Minister of Information, Communications and the Arts is authorized under the Newspaper and Printing Presss Act to grant and withdraw press license as the agency sees fit. Foreign publications are not exempt; their circulation may be limited or the publication banned outright if they are deemed to be interfering in domestic politics.

The Broadcasting Act, on the other hand, empowers the Media Development Authority (MDA) to censor all broadcast media, Internet sites, and all other media, including movies, videos, computer games and music. Restrictions can also be placed on foreign broadcasters if they are considered “engaging in domestic politics”. Meanwhile, the Films Act subjects all films to licensing and censorship.

The Sedition Act criminalizes any act, speech, words, publication or expression that incite disaffection against the government or the administration of justice in Singapore, or to incite hatred amongst the citizens, or to create hostility between different races and classes in Singapore.

But the most effective tool used by the city state’s political leaders to discourage their opponents and silence critics is defamation, both civil and criminal. There have been scores of lawsuits filed against opposition politicians and media critics. Many of them—media outlets among them—have been bankrupted by the exorbitant damage claims.

With everything backdropped by a judicial system that the International Bar Association in 2008 denounced as politicized and partial when it comes to speech crimes brought to court by political leaders, it is not a surprise then that self-censorship is pervasive—and not just in traditional mass media. Even over the Internet, self-censorship is somewhat inevitable.

Singapore outright blocks a mere token sample of around 100 websites—mostly pornographic in nature—and otherwise keeps all other sites accessible. But its control over content and citizens’ online behavior are exercised in other ways.
For example, all Internet Service Providers (ISPs) are required to register with, and are subjected to, the Media Development Authority’s (MDA) Internet Code of Practice. The MDA is empowered to order service providers to block websites that are deemed to undermine public security, national defense, racial and religious harmony, or public morals.

Out of bounds
Beyond this, Singaporean journalists, academics, writers, artists and bloggers are daily conscious of “OB markers”―a nebulous yet all too real concept that is ingrained in the minds of anybody in Singapore who has anything to say.  “OB” stands for “out-of-bounds”, and although (or precisely because) such markers are unofficial, in fact unwritten, its net is cast wide by individual minds, and creates for a suffocating environment where the limits of one’s freedom to express is defined by citizens themselves.

Conservatism is thus a default mode in any medium presuming a Singaporean audience―whether it be television, radio, print, or the Internet.

Even the foreign media are famously vulnerable to finding themselves out-of-bounds in Singapore, having already paid in years past millions of dollars in defamation fees to former Prime Minister Lee Kuan Yew and his handpicked successors, former PM Goh Chok Tong and Lee’s son, the incumbent Lee Hsien Loong. In 2007 the government revised rules governing the circulation and operation of foreign publications in the Singapore, requiring the appointment of a Singaporean citizen in the management structure that, critics say, was stipulated largely for the purpose of creating a pressure point that makes the threat of litigation that much more intimidating.

If the government does not find sufficient legal grounds to sue what it deems an erring journalist, it simply bans him or her from the city state. In 2009 the government’s Manpower Ministry refused to renew British freelance journalist Benjamin Bland’s work visa and his application to cover the Asia Pacific Economic Cooperation (APEC) summit meeting. Bland was reporting on the summit for the UK’s “Daily Telegraph” newspaper.

The Singapore government has refused to explain or give official basis for its action against Bland.

In September 2008, a Singaporean court found the “Far Easter Economic Review” and its editor, Hugo Restall, guilty of criminal defamation for a feature it published on oppositionist Chee Soon Juan. The lawsuit was filed by former prime minister Lee Kuan Yew and his son, the incumbent Prime Minister Lee Hsein Loong. After a year-long appeals process, the Appeals Court upheld in October 2009  the High Court’s ruling. The following month, the court proclaimed that the magazine and Restall should pay the Lees a total of S$405,000 (approx. US$290,000) in damages and costs.

The magazine agreed to pay the damages, resigned to the fact that one simply cannot win in a legal battle against the powers-that-be in the country. “Having waged this battle for press freedom to Singapore’s highest court, we are now resolving this case rather than engaging in a protracted damages process,” a spokesman from Dow Jones, which owns the FEER, said in 17 November 2009.

The irony is that FEER was scheduled to close down in December 2009, for its own financial problems. That the final nail in its coffin would come from the hands of Singapore, however, was not entirely surprising.

Much of what limits free expression in Singapore is not so much the cases that exist, but the very knowledge that the powers-that-be have powers they have never been shy to wield. Ultimately, the image of ruthlessness—to bankrupt a critic; to deprive a publication of business; to run foreign observers out of town; to limit commentators’ opportunities for an audience (or their own livelihood)—is actively nurtured.

Precisely so that everybody else will likely just choose the path of least resistance. Singapore proves it true, and it will continue to demonstrate it in the year ahead, that the most efficient and effective form of censorship is self-censorship.