17 Nov 2004

Singapore slams media watchdog for low ranking in press freedom

Singapore slams media watchdog for low ranking in press freedom
Everythings FINE Here

SINGAPORE (AP) - Singapore on Wednesday slammed a media watchdog for ranking the island in the same league as authoritarian North Korea and Myanmar in press freedom, saying outsiders shouldn't equate freedom with criticizing the government.

Tightly controlled Singapore placed 147th in the annual index put out by Reporters Without Borders - by far the lowest ranking of any developed country in the annual ranking - and just one notch above Iraq and 18 above Myanmar.

Others countries in the bottom two-dozen included Libya at 154, Zimbabwe at 157 and China at 162.

North Korea was ranked worst at 167; Cuba was 166.

Information Minister Lee Boon Yang said the index imposes a standard that fails to take into account "special circumstances" in Singapore, where he said journalists contribute to the nation's development and are not necessarily adversarial.

Lee said the Reporters Without Borders index "is based largely on a different media model which favours the advocacy and adversarial role of the press."

"We have a different media model in Singapore," Lee said in a written comments distributed by the government.

"This model has evolved out of our special circumstances and has enabled our media to contribute to nation building," he said, adding the government simply "did not agree" with the organisation's rankings, which were released late last month.

Lee said Singapore's media "has to be sensitive to our national interests. The city-state's leaders have repeatedly said it would not change to cater to a more "Western" set of media values.

All aspects of Singapore's media face strict censorship, while home TV satellite units remain off-limits.

Arts performances and plays remain under constant watch and topics deemed too sensitive, such as race and religion, remain taboo and out-of-bounds for discussion.

Foreign news organizations like The International Herald Tribune, the Far Eastern Economic Review and The Asian Wall Street Journal also have paid large fines or had their circulation restricted from lawsuits brought on by ruling party stalwarts.

In September, the Economist magazine paid Singapore's founding father Lee Kuan Yew, and his son Lee Hsien Loong, the current prime minister, 390,000 Singapore dollars (US$237,800; euro183,332) for a reference in an article to the younger Lee's wife, who heads Temasek.

The magazine had alleged that Lee's wife, Ho Ching, was not appointed on merit. The magazine subsequently apologised. - AP

Surely the ministers in North Korea, Libya, Zimbabwe, China, Cuba and the other authoriatarian states could cite exactly the same rebuttal as Information Minister Lee Boon Yang, an argument that would render evaluation by any independent body redundant. Or are you going to tell me that every reporter who isn't Singaporean is a "Westerner". Exactly what are these "special circumstances"? Size, ethnic and religious diversity, proximity, a state monopoly of national media. Is the good minister arguing that Zimbabwe, North Korea, Cuba and China are also simply responding to "special circumstances".

How about a unique "special circumstance" called authoritarian, despotic, nepotistic rulers, anti-democratic ...

Singapore's bedfellows, really do throw Singaporean journalism into the spotlight. And that is shameful for such an economically developed society. What are those in power trying to hide? Is it that ugly underneath the veil of economic success?


Anonymous said...

hey i'm back to haunt you ;)

anyway i was frankly expecting more than just another 'harp' on the media in sg. perhaps a better way is to point out inconsistancies in the gov's handling of 'special' circumstances instead of just picking on the validity of it. This way it might be easier to convince detractors that either the media control is unwarranted or other governmental policies are mistakenly formulated, win win situation.

Just a thought, from a humble undergrad :)
-ivan ivanandxia.com

Anonymous said...

Right, North Korea a beacon of press freedom then? After all, they have "special circumstances" and an alternative model too - not to mention non-Western values.

Not much of a response is it? Clearly, (mis)Information Minister Lee Boon Yang's defensive blustering is nothing more than an _ignoratio elenchi_.

Criticism per se is of course not indicative of the level of press freedom. But of course. No one suggested otherwise. Rather, the point is that press freedom is unduly stifled in Singapore because of

1. the perceived compliance of the judiciary when it comes to politically motivated litigation;

2. the fact that senior editorial and management positions are staffed by ex secret police operatives (e.g. Chua Lee Hoong, Irene Ho, Susan Sim and Tjong Yik Min) and other loyalists who doubtless toe the line;

3. the zealous tabs the state keeps on reporting that is even remotely controversial or critical;

4. the fact that Singapore Press Holdings - which prints the main daily broadsheets - is closely linked to the government; and

5. the austere strictness of the formal - and informal - regulative (and self-regulating) regimes of the press.

In such a climate, no editor who is a career journalist will likely stake his professional life on the line by being overly critical, much less stoke controversy. Indeed, he'd do well to err on the side of prudence, seeing as the odds are stacked against maverick (dirty word, that!) journalism.

But back to Mr. Lee's non-response. Nowhere in the Reporters sans frontières criteria was "criticism" mentioned as a criterion of assessment. Yet even if it were - it would have been merely 1 of 53 criteria of distributed weightage. Amongst the criteria are:

". . . every kind of violation directly affecting journalists (such as murders, imprisonment, physical attacks and threats) and news media (censorship, confiscation of issues, searches and harassment). . . . the degree of impunity enjoyed by those responsible for these press freedom violations. . . . the legal and judicial situation affecting the news media (such as the penalties for press offences, the existence of a state monopoly in certain areas and the existence of a regulatory body) and the behaviour of the authorities towards the state-owned news media and international press."

The honourable minister simply has not addressed what he purports to address - namely, the validity of the criteria used to assess press freedom. He claims we have a 'different press model', yet curiously does not elaborate on how we are to assess the level of press freedom in his "alternative model". Presumably, it would be assessed according to criteria predicated on "alternative" values then? So far so vague, but we are left none the wiser. BECAUSE I FAIL TO SEE HOW *ELSE* ONE CAN ASSESS PRESS FREEDOM EXCEPT IN TERMS OF RESTRICTIONS TO THAT FREEDOM - PRECISELY THE CRITERIA EMPLOYED BY REPORTERS SANS FRONTIERES.

Unless of course, Mr Lee is suggesting we ditch the entire concept of press freedom as unimportant and irrelevant altogether, in which case he should just come right out and _say so_ instead of dancing around vacuous pronouncements about how we supposedly measure press freedom 'differently'.

Oddly enough, when positive evaluations - from quasi-thinktanks such as PERC - as to our economic freedom, economic competitiveness, judiciary's competence, etc. are gaily splashed across the Straits Times as front page news I don't see them clucking about "different models" and 'alternative standards' of economic freedom!

calm one said...

I've said enough in Steven's last post on the press freedom rankings. But here's an article which may be of interest.lifeatngeeann.blogspot.com

Anonymous said...

Good link. I've criticized Andy Ho and Chua Lee Hoong much along the same lines before. Chua is the paradigm of sycophantic journalism.

Singapore, btw, has no "intellectual elite". It has, at most, a self-indulgent chattering class.

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