Does Singapore still need media restrictions?

NOVEMBER 1 — I have a confession. Every Friday, after I hit send on my email to get this very column to my editor, I have a moment (sometimes several depending on that week’s topic of choice) of panic.

Often, I turn to my husband — who serves the additional role of personal sub-editor — and ask him: Will I get sued? His replies vary from the assuring No! to a more troubling I don’t think so. And the worst is when he reveals he has some concern about one particular emphatic statement or another.

It’s terrifying.

And frankly, it does us all a great disservice.

The freedom — or lack thereof — that journalists, commentators and writers have in Singapore is frustrating because it is so unnecessary.

With 70 per cent of its population strongly endorsing the ruling party, a robust successful economy and well-educated citizenry, the Singaporean community is safe and sound. We do not need to be protected from a free media.

Our society’s intelligence is only punished by any media policy that doesn’t accommodate questioning, querying and quarrel.

The rather dogged Far Eastern Economic Review would see multiple law suits brought against it, and The International Herald Tribune (IHT) and Financial Times have also been on the losing end of suits filed by the government.

The fines imposed are also typically more than a slap on the wrist — a 1994 verdict against the IHT called for S$950,000 (RM2.9 million) worth of damages to be paid.

From a nationalist perspective you might just be able to justify stifling the meddling Western press if you leave some space for local critics to make themselves heard — but that hasn’t happened.

Right up to the present day, the courts are kept busy with various suits against those, local and foreign, whose criticism is deemed to have crossed the line.

Blogger Roy Ngerng speaks to the media at the Supreme Court after a defamation hearing in Singapore on July 1, 2015. — AFP pic
Blogger Roy Ngerng speaks to the media at the Supreme Court after a defamation hearing in Singapore on July 1, 2015. — AFP pic

Over the past year (local) bloggers Alex Au and Roy Ngerng have both been found guilty of defamation though the courts are yet to determine the extent of the fines they will be liable to pay.

While the absolute number of cases is relatively few, the government’s 100 per cent win record in all the cases it has initiated frightens me. I have to ask myself if what I think and write will one day lead me to bankruptcy?

Recently, it seemed that even the rather muted state newspaper — the Straits Times (ST) ventured into unsafe territory with a piece by ST assistant political editor Rachel Chang on a Hepatitis C outbreak. The article, which examined the timeline of the incident and the Ministry of Health’s response, drew the swift and clear ire of the ministry which issued a strongly worded admonishment.

Media veteran PN Balji summed it up aptly: “Its reaction was not just intended for the journalists of ST. It wanted to send a signal to everybody that this is an OB marker that cannot be crossed. This government continues to be obsessed with media control. In fact, it has brought about reforms in nearly every government policy, but has kept its media policy untouched.”

OB or Out of Bounds markers in Singapore’s media landscape references the area in golf from which the ball can no longer be played; this means topics that are deemed, by the government, to be unfit for public discussion.

There have always been OB topics in Singapore though where exactly the boundary line stands is hard to state, understand or justify in any democracy. The term itself is a clear and sad indication of the government’s anachronistic thinking — golf is a game but the right of the public to question and receive pertinent answers is not.


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