SINGAPORE’S controlled media has come under criticism for the way it covered the campaign leading to last Saturday’s general election. While Singaporeans were still pondering on which party to give their votes to, many had already cast a negative vote for what they perceived to be biased, lop-sided press coverage.
A frequent charge was that the amount of space and time given by the national press and TV in this election was overwhelmingly in favour of the ruling People’s Action Party (PAP). Some of it was slanted to its favour. Much of what the opposition candidates did or said, on the other hand, was either ignored or under-reported. The national media made little effort to project an even-handed approach or treat both the ruling PAP and its political rivals as equal entities. There was hardly any mention of figures or photographs of the huge crowds attending their rallies.
Already viewed as underdogs, the struggling candidates may have benefited from a public backlash, a perception that they are victims of media bias. “I am not interested in politics, but I don’t like the media reporting. It’s Third World standard, similar to propaganda,” proclaimed an online letter. “I’d like to voice my discontent at the way the Singapore media reports the election. I am extremely disappointed by the way the media does its work,” another said.
It began on nomination day when the official Channel News Asia gave such an overwhelming coverage to the ruling party that it prompted some critics to name it “Channel PAP”. Subsequent days were hardly any better. “Day in and night out, it’s all about the ruling party; some 80% or more coverage was given to its side of the story,” Grunt complained. More than 100 letters from readers, many of them believed to be sympathetic to the opposition, have not been published partly because of insufficient space.
Unlike other developed nations, Singapore has never been renowned for objective journalism. Its pro-government newspapers and TV rarely see the need to be even-handed in political coverage.
So why is the criticism so vocal this time? For one thing, the slant was more than before, possibly because the PAP was under the strongest challenge in 20 years. But the main reason could be the changing electorate, younger Singaporeans who see a fair media as crucial for democracy, concepts not always shared by the government. This has driven many people to hear for themselves what the opposition parties had to say, adding to the huge rallies.
“I have to go because the press is unlikely to report very much of it,” an undergraduate explained. Many were also compelled to rely on the internet. This has been described as Singapore’s first internet election. “It gave people who didn’t attend the rallies information they didn’t have in past elections. “The PAP move to control the internet just before the elections failed completely because it was ignored,” an observer said.
About 40% of voters were born after 1965, the year of independence, the vast majority being web-connected. What The Straits Times and CNA did not provide, the internet did – citizens’ reports, videos and photographs of rallies were widely available despite a ban on political weblogs. Pictures of huge opposition rallies, which were published in Malaysia, never saw the light of day in Singapore’s official media outside the websites. Two of the websites were started recently just to accommodate photos and videos of rallies. Most of Singapore’s dozen or so online forums and the political blogs reported a substantial increase in visitors. In global search engines, the subject “Singapore election” was among the top entries.
The press itself became an issue when voters were discussing fair governance and political level-playing fields. It was accused of playing up the government and putting down the opposition. Years of control have affected Singapore’s image abroad. A survey by Reporters Without Borders last year ranked the state 140 out of 167 countries in terms of press freedom – worse than Russia or Afghanistan. The government has dismissed it as not important.
Some citizens appealed to the journalists and editors to make a conscious effort to strive for world-class professionalism. “For those of you who still have a moral conscience, I suggest that you quit and join a foreign publication ... to report on Singapore,” one letter said. Others called for a boycott of the media. “I have cancelled my subscriptions and will resume buying only if the newspapers regain their freedom,” one web letter said.
The feared backlash by voters may have had some impact – temporarily. Before the nine-day campaign ended, there was better coverage of opposition speeches. “Tonight’s Channel 8 news was more favourable towards the opposition. I heard some reporters had complained and threatened to quit. The same thing is happening in the newspapers,” a viewer observed. A reader blogged, “I bought the Lianhe Wanbao (Chinese newspaper) today; the report was fair with a lot of what the opposition had said at the rallies. They are doing a good job.”
A media insider has appealed for understanding and patience because there is a rising awareness among young journalists about the need for change. “They are the people best capable to push for it when the time is ripe,” he said. Prime Minister Lee Hsien Loong has promised further opening up of the society. In 20 years, he said, Singapore would be a totally different place.
Judging by the tone of many post-65’ers, it could well be sooner.
Note: Seah Chiang Nee is a veteran journalist and editor of the information website littlespeck.com
9 May 2006
From The National, a newspaper from Papua New Guinea:
Posted by akikonomu at 5/09/2006 10:33:00 am