7 Feb 2005

Technology not a substitute to policy change for a freer Singapore media

Relying on technology alone may not be the best approach to adopt if one is interested in opening up the media landscape in Singapore. An effective media policy aimed at making changes to media law maybe a better option.

Tuesday, 24 August 2004

by James Gomez

Changes to the law

In this regard, for the tightly regulated media arena in Singapore to open up, the first step would be to introduce genuine competition into the local media sector by issuing more licenses to individuals and companies that want to provide print, broadcast or Internet service.

The licensing requirements should be enabling and work towards growing the media market by lowering or reducing entry barriers into the industry.

The second step is to ensure that government ownership ratio in local media is regulated. To this end amendments to the News Paper and Printing Act needs to be brought into effect to do away with the present 3% cap. Changes in the Broadcast Act, to ensure that free-to-air channels also receive competition, need to be considered.

Such ownership requirements should apply across the broad including Internet Service Providers.

Foreign media

A different approach also needs to be taken towards the foreign media. Under the PAP government’s scheme of things the foreign media does operate under very strict conditions.

The News Paper and Printing Act as well as the Broadcast Act need to be revised to ensure that a proper atmosphere is created for international journalism to operate in Singapore.

Further the terms of employment as well as visa requirements for foreign journalists should be made more transparent. There should also be a process of appeal where visa requirements and work permit related issues are involved.

Freedom of information Act

A crucial component to ensuring media freedom is to enact a Freedom of Information Act. Key components of the Act need to include clear options for extracting information from government including the declassification of historical information.

In particular there need to be clear time frames within which civil servants need to respond to queries from members of the public as well as the media.

Another component would be to include a statement of privacy to guard the individuals’ right to privacy in an increasing environment of high tech surveillance and storage of data traffic.

Presently there seem not be adequate balance between privacy and surveillance.

Dealing with self-censorship

Attempts need to be made to loosen up the atmosphere of self-censorship under which the local media and sometimes foreign media based in Singapore operate.

One way to do this is to mitigate the damages awarded in civil libel suits. This can be done by placing a cap by recommending that awards follow international insurance standards when payments are made for loss of life and limbs.

Another way to deal with self-censorship, compliance and harassment of the media is to encourage whistle-blowing and to offer protection to genuine whistle-blowers.

Under the present circumstances, working journalists do feel a certain amount of constrain over what they think is permissible especially when it comes to political reporting.

Media watch and ethics

A non-legalisative approach can also include an endowment fund to set up an independent Media Watch and Ethics institution.

This body can be made up of working and retired journalists to monitor the media and develop a code of conduct for working journalists.

This body may also conduct training for NGOs and activists on how to execute media advocacy campaigns on freedom of information, access to information, privacy and media watch activities.

Students studying journalism at tertiary institutions can also do work related internships with this institution.

This body should be self-regulating body and should seek to network with other similar institutions in the region and around the world.

Technology not the answer to policy making

Often the proliferation of new media technologies such as the Internet is cited as reasons why the media might open up in Singapore.

The low cost, its high diffusion among the population and its purported capacity to by pass censorship is said to enable this outcome.

Although technology can play at part, over reliance on it should be avoided. Instead effective policy making as suggested here in this article maybe a better way forward for a more open media environment in Singapore.

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