12 Jul 2006

Crackdown on Satirical Blogging

Crackdown on Satirical Blogging
Marwaan Macan-Markar

BANGKOK, Jul 12 (IPS) - Among the popular T-shirts that a tourist can buy on a visit to Singapore is one that, tongue-in-cheek, describes that affluent island country as a 'Fine City'.

The reasons are creatively displayed at the back of the shirt. One could be fined for breaking the laws against chewing gum, fined against littering the streets, fined for not flushing the toilet and fined for indulging in unnatural sex.

But it appears that attempts at satirising government, known for its authoritarianism, will soon be added to this illustrious list of offences.

Already the state has harshly rebuked one of the country's most popular bloggers, Lee Kin Mun who writes under the online moniker of ‘'mr brown.'' His offence was poking fun at a spike in prices and the rising cost of living for the country's 4.2 million people.

‘'It is not the role of journalists or newspapers in Singapore to champion issues, or campaign for or against the Government,'' wrote Krishnasamy Bhavani, press secretary to the ministry of information, communications and art in an article to the state-owned ‘Today' newspaper last week. ‘'If a columnist presents himself as a non-political observer, while exploiting his access to the mass media to undermine the Government's standing with the electorate, then he is no longer a constructive critic, but a partisan player in politics.''

Over the weekend, another high ranking official of the same ministry echoed a similar piece of Singaporean government-speak. ‘'If you feel there is a problem with cost of living, say so, let's collectively explore solutions. But don't in the name of humour distort or aggravate on an emotional level,'' Dr. Vivian Balakrishnan, second minister for the ministry of information, communications and art, was quoted saying by the website of Channel NewsAsia, a Singapore-based television station. ''That sort of discourse does not generate solutions. It generates more heat than light.''

And as is typical in Singapore, where the mainstream media serve as cheerleaders for the government, the ‘Today' newspapers did the obvious --on Jul. 7, it suspended the column written by ‘'mr brown.'' It was the previous Friday that the paper ran the blog on the economy, which is still available on Lee's website, that roused the ire of officialdom.

In his witty commentary, titled ‘'Singaporeans are fed, up with progress!'' the 36-year-old blogger writes: ‘'As sure as Superman Returns, our cost of living is also on the up. Except we are not able to leap over high costs in a single bound.''

Yet, this confrontation between the government and a symbol of the country's expanding cyberspace community is giving rise to resistance by sections of the Singaporean public that are nor ready to fall in line with the government's iron law of thought control.

On Sunday, some 30 supporters of the banned blogger conducted a silent protest at a busy subway station. They were dressed in brown clothes as a mark of solidarity to this latest victim of state censorship, media reports said. Such open defiance is rare, given the laws that require a police permit if more than five people want to gather in public to stage a demonstration.

The censured writer is also finding support within the country's blogging community. One blogger, who goes by the identity ‘'yawning bread,'' says: ''The equation (that Bhavani) insisted upon was, effectively this: if you criticise, it must mean you are out to undermine the government. If you are out to undermine, then you are no longer neutral, but a partisan player. If you're partisan, the government reserves the right to destroy you.''

Others have responded differently to the Singaporean government's latest absurdity. ''Humour is not encouraged in Singapore. I am predicting that we might be caned if seen laughing at jokes, some day. But it is OK to smile at tourists,'' writes another blogger.

For media rights groups, however, this confrontation was inevitable, given the new challenges posed by Singapore's expanding blogging community. According to the state-owned ‘Straits Times,' there are over 22,000 Singapore blogs. And like other bloggers across the world, these writers communicate directly with their audience rather than having to depend on the editorial whims of the mainstream media.

‘'This is a defining moment for Singapore's blogging community, most of who are sophisticated and highly educated,'' Roby Alampay, executive director of the South-east Asia Press Alliance, a regional media watchdog, said in an interview. ‘'Things may come to a head, because blogging enables citizens to reach out. And ‘mr brown' is one of the pioneers of this trend.''

The harsh restriction Singapore imposes on bloggers has earned it a place among other South-east Asian countries notorious for censoring free expression on the Internet, such as Burma, Laos and Vietnam. Such impositions -- together with the government's reputation of going after its critics with defamation cases and the threat of prison terms have stymied the growth of an independent media..

In 2005, the Paris-based watchdog Reporters Without Borders placed Singapore 140th out of 167 countries surveyed. That was the worst ranking for a developed country.

What is more, the restrictions show up how far short the government of Prime Minister Lee Hsien Loong has fallen from a pledge made in August, 2004, shortly after Lee took on the mantle of premiership. Then, in a speech that stressed he wanted to see a more open and free Singapore, Lee said: ''Our people should feel free to express diverse views, pursue unconventional ideas or simply be different.''

Parliamentary elections in May this year offered more than a hint about the true nature of politics under the Lee administration. Leaders from opposition groups like the Singapore Democratic Party (SDP) were banned from using the electronic media to campaign. And bloggers and website managers were warned by a minister that they do not have the right to endorse the political policies of a particular candidate.

''To ban ‘mr brown' does not say much for Lee Hsien Loong's promise of an open political culture,'' Chee Siok Chin, a ranking member of the SDP, told IPS. ‘'More people are tapping into the blogging world because there is a lot of political value.''

This trend, she said, is because of the lack of openness in the media. ‘'Bloggers are coming out and airing their political views more and more. This is largely because of the restrictions on the mainstream media we have here.'' (END/2006)


Anonymous said...

it is most distressing and sad what the PAP has done yet again trying to gag citizens. We have no say at all, not even to express our unhappiness out loud except on line. there is so little to be proud of being a singaporean now no thanks to PAP. thanks to PAP's party politics, You have singlehandedly disgraced our nation and shamed our people through your tyranny.

while us minions r eking out a living amidst rising costs, some GLCs and stat boards r busy spending taxpayers money. Having worked in one of these, I have been horrified to see how wasteful they have been in glorfying their offices and spending on collection of material things in a pursuit of so called "world class" status. I have seen unnecessary collection of expensive artworks at some offices and why the hell did a stat board SLF need to spend $100K on its annual report when it does not have mass shareholders???? Where is the check and balance? where is the transparency?

Anonymous said...

title was wrong - see foreign press cannot trust

blogging has not been banned; just no longer carried in hard copy Today

Anonymous said...

its not abt where blogging was banned. it's the harsh act of suspending MB's column. as someone familiar with how the press works. Today's action was a directive from the government. it is a clear signal and possible the start of an attempt to clamp down on effective bloggers. just watch...the PAp will not sit back and do nothing if the bloggers extend their reach and impact.

Anonymous said...

then, we can also boycott and read TODAY - afterall, it's just another papsmear's reporting news agent.

Anonymous said...

don't read TODAY

clyde said...

Calling it a crackdown after one columnist gets suspended is slightly sensationalist. But it is naivety on our part to believe that the suspension of mrbrown has changed anything, or even reflected change in the media. MediaCorp has never "loosened up" in any form in any of its derivatives in ST, Today, Channel 5 etc. They cannot take away what we don't have in the first place, which is free expression. They hire 1, 2, 3, x number of bloggers to write columns and they call it's a sign of progress in the media. Mrbrown merely crossed the OB markers and has suffered the consequence. It tells us no more and no less about what we already know about censorship and the media. Prosecute or persecute mrbrown for his online content however, and they have another thing coming.

Anonymous said...

Kudos to anon's insightful comment! I think the best solution is for local bloggers have to start appealing to international activist groups to support their lobbying for freedom of expression online. MB's case is a warning to other bloggers, you're absolutely right. We gotta move faster than the PAP in this war.

Matilah_Singapura said...

It's about this, it's about that... whatever folks.

You guys are almost uptight as the overpaid apparatchiks.

Geez, can't anyone have a laugh—especially at the state and the govt? Or is that going to be banned too?

I think one of the reasons s'pore's reputation has been "highlighted" in recent times, is because the rest of the world have a fucking sense of humour. :)

Wassup Singapore rulers? Aren't you getting it sucked at night or what...?

Anonymous said...

Sense of humour is not encouraged by the gahmen, smile at the tourists and the angmohs, but leave your sense of humour at home.

Anonymous said...

sometimes i wonder what will it take for singapore to change? An implosion from within or explosion from external pressure??

it just is clear that PAP listens to on one not even the citizens who pay their salaries. we cna say we get what we deserve for those who voted them in. but pls never forget many of us have been deprived of our rights to even vote! so it's still PAP tat shld take all the blame. self searching is too hard for them. their souls are sorely in need of salvation.

Anonymous said...

any surprise why Singapore voted most Unhappy Nation in ASIA??

LKY--BGLee- R u all listening? Do u even bloody care??

if this goes on, you and PAP will not be remembered for the good u have done in the name of progress and prosperity but for the tyranny and damage u did in destroying a young nation and crushing its ppl's dreams and hopes.

Anonymous said...

We must not blame TODAY.

Everyone know that the actions taken were beyond their control. Read the response from Lee Boon Yang!

We must be fair to TODAY.

They did not publish the famed ' MB' video in their papers - at least the text - during the General Elections.

There is a bigger party to look at - the Straits Times.

At least they (TODAY) had tried to loosen our society up and we all enjoyed the paper much more than the Straits Times, which many of us do not buy them any longer.

Let us appreciate the 'half glass full' as it was never easy to have a paper - free, too- that gave a run for the money to Straits Times and brought alternative and 'more' refreshing' views from so many readers.

Remember the Straits Time lost millions $ in the Project Eyeball.
They had tried to copy TODAY, but fail miserably. Why were they afraid of competition in the first place ?? That they might lose advertising revenue !

We forget this bigger culprit- the Straits Times. Some of their columnists (not all) have also delved into politics so many times and got away with it. Minister Lee Boon Yang should take action against them too !

The Straits Times had also use the NKF issue to sensationalise. This had affected all funds going into voluntary organisations for their own selfish agenda and made the govt and the VWO job that much harder. Remember the Straits Times were a party in the suit and hence had an agenda, and Minister Khaw Hoon Wan also correctly said that the Straits Times gave a certain spin in their reporting. This was never denied by the Straits Times.

Many people realise that they tried to politicise this insidiously and perhaps had deliberately caused embarassment to the govt leaders (and VWOs), too especially when the General Elections was round the corner. We saw all these effect as the General Election is now over, didn't we ?

So let us look at things in perspective, I suppose, as far as our papers are concerned.

Anonymous said...

just sibling rivalry

Anonymous said...

Yes, agreed.

Boycott the Straits Times. And speak to our friends (in marketing and sales of companies) not to take up advertisements in this paper.

The govt should also take action against them for getting into politics.
I do not know which reporters they were mentioning. (incl some sisters journalists ?)

Anyway,I do not read the Straits Times for fear of becoming part of the 'unhappy' Singaporeans as highlighted in the global survey.
Is it true that there were some changes in the papers' management after the Charity saga last year, as their reports had in some way undermine the govt standing ? They had used these episode to hit at the govt, it appears.