Asked about his country's very low position in the 2004 Reporters Without Borders press freedom ranking, former Prime Minister Lee Kuan Yew (the present prime minister's father) lashed out at western journalists and defended Singapore's model of press control.
"You are not going to teach us how we should run the country," a foreign correspondent was told by Lee Kuan Yew, Singapore's strongman since 1959, in response to a question about Singapore's disastrous position - 144th out of 166 countries - in the Reporters Without Borders ranking. "We are not so stupid, we know what our interests are and we try to preserve them," said the so-called theoretician of Asian values in defence of the government's restrictions on free expression.
Information minister Lee Bon Yang had this to say about the Reporters Without Borders ranking : "This index is largely based on a news media model that favours the press's role of criticism and opposition (...) We have a different model in Singapore. It has been developed in particular circumstances and allows our media to contribute to our nation's construction."
Singapore's low ranking was due to the complete absence of independent newspapers, radio stations and TV stations, the application of prison sentences for press offences, media self-censorship and the opposition's lack of access to the state media.
Fines and self-censorship
For several decades, the government has had a very sophisticated strategy for silencing Singaporean and foreign journalists who wrote stories that are embarrassing for the political elite. The threat of heavy fines or distribution bans have sufficed to bring press groups to heel. The British news weekly The Economist was punished in this fashion in 2004. Its management made a public apology in September to Prime Minister Lee Hsien Loong - who had been in office for only a month - over an article questioning the appointment of his wife to run a major financial entity. The Economist also agreed to pay 200,000 euros in damages. In recent years, two US daily newspapers, the International Herald Tribune and Asian Wall Street Journal, and the Hong Kong-based Far Eastern Economic Review have also been sentenced to pay heavy fines or have had their distribution blocked over articles considered hostile or libellous by the Singaporean authorities.
Dissidents can find refuge on the Internet where a small number of news websites such as newsintercom.org or discussion forums such as Sg_Review dare to break the otherwise pervasive silence about the country's political situation.
Singaporeans have ample access to foreign media, but the two large national press groups, Singapore Press Holdings and Mediacorp, are run by ruling party allies. Their journalists censor themselves on domestic issues although the quality of their international coverage is good. A committee set up by the government in April 2002 to review the existing censorship laws had recommended liberalization, but the government still had not adopted any policy for amending the press laws by the end of 2004.
Through the Media Development Authority, the government also continues to censor dozens of films and TV programmes considered contrary to Singaporean morals, especially those referring to homosexuality. Officials justify this censorship by arguing that "70 per cent of Singaporeans are hostile to homosexuality."
3 May 2005
Singapore - Annual report 2005