First Published 21 October 2005
TODAY, legal and media professionals will gather at the Supreme Court to debate the relationship between law and media. One can expect the issue of the Films Act to be brought up.
The Media Development Authority (MDA) recently noted that the MediaCorp television series Up Close did not breach the Films Act prohibition on party political films, as the episodes in question - which featured five ministers talking about their portfolios - were "non-partisan" and aired "for the purpose of reporting current affairs".
The Government had introduced the ban on party political films amid concerns that "political discourse in Singapore would degenerate into 30-second spots directed by image consultants", and that the quality of election campaigning would be compromised. As then Minister for Information and the Arts George Yeo emphasised, the Government desired "to keep political debate in Singapore serious".
According to the Films Act, "a party political film" is one "made by or on behalf of any political party in Singapore"; by any body whose objectives primarily concern Singapore politics; or by any person for "any political end".
A film has a political end if it contains material "intended or likely to affect voting in any election or national referendum in Singapore"; "partisan or biased references"; or comments on "any political matter". As is typical of most media legislation, the classification is worded broadly to capture diverse activities, even discussion on government policies. It allows for two situations in which a film is not a party-political film: If it is made to report current events, or to give general information on election "procedures and polling times". Offenders can be fined up to $100,000 or imprisoned for up to two years.
The MDA faces a daunting task in deciding what is - or isn't - a "party political film". How does it decide if something is "partisan" or if it merely "reports current events"? Is this best decided by an independent body of persons, or by a group of government employees?
Some, like me, feel a review of the Films Act is in order. For example, its process of assessment, investigation, enforcement and appeal can be codified separately.
Decisions should preferably be made by an independent body of people whose deliberations should be public and free from any perceived political pressure from the dominant party or the opposition parties. There should be opportunities for appeal and for judicial review. Yet even with such codification, any decision can be disputed as subjective, since it is based on interpretation. So, we need to ask if banning such party political films is the best way forward in the first place.
These films can be easily screened outside Singapore, and controversy is often the best crowd-drawer. Also, film bans are increasingly irrelevant in this age of broadband Internet access, which has made it possible to download films from websites that are hosted overseas, such as Martyn See's documentary on Singapore Democratic Party secretary-general Chee Soon Juan, Singapore Rebel.
Even if such websites are blocked - as they are in China - there are Internet entrepreneurs who will simply mirror the website and provide regulators like MDA with a bigger problem to manage. A better solution may be not to ban these films but to require them to include warnings or declarations, for instance.
If the film is deemed partisan, MDA, together with the Singapore Film Commission, can appoint another film-maker to introduce brief footage that will make it less partisan. For example, if the film makes fun of film censors, get a quick view from film censors, or request an academic to provide a brief analysis. Such clips can be screened at the end of the film to balance audience perspective, as a condition for the film being passed for screening in Singapore.
Conditions can also be imposed on where and how party political films can be screened. For example, like R21 (restricted) films, such films could be screened in specified cinemas only. Tickets could be subject to a minimum price of $20 - half of which could be donated to the film commission and the National Arts Council.
These moves would address the Government's concerns about the negative effect of party political films and its desire "to keep political debate in Singapore serious", while in the long run, also enrich our creative industries and make audiences more media savvy.
The writer, a corporate counsel, contributes in a personal capacity. - TODAY