By Barry Newhouse
07 August 2006
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Media rights advocates are criticizing the Singapore government's recent decision to close what it described as a loophole in its restrictive media laws. Several foreign news organizations now face more stringent controls.
Singapore officials say five publications, the Far Eastern Economic Review, the International Herald Tribune, the Financial Times, Newsweek and Time magazines, must follow the same rules as other foreign publications, if they want to continue publishing in the country by appointing a legal representative in Singapore, and paying a deposit of about $126,000.
In a statement e-mailed to VOA, the press secretary to Singapore's minister for information, communications and the arts said officials revoked the five publications' exemptions to the rule as part of a policy review.
Foreign publications in Singapore are subject to the Newspapers and Printing Presses Act. The press secretary wrote that the law reinforces the government's position that it is "a privilege, not a right, for foreign newspapers to circulate in Singapore."
The media group Reporters Without Borders has ranked Singapore a low 140th out of 167 countries in its 2005 worldwide press freedom index. It said the loophole closure follows the Far Eastern Economic Review's recent interview with government critic and opposition leader Chee Soon Juan.
Senior editor at the Thai daily newspaper The Nation, Kavi Chongkittavorn, agrees that the closure is meant to send a message to the media.
"I think the Singaporean government wants to send a strong message that when a foreign publication wants to write about Singapore, and [is] on sale in Singapore, it's the Singapore government that makes the rules, not the foreign publication," said Kavi.
Roby Alampay of the Southeast Asia Press Alliance says Singapore is also signaling that it will not tolerate protests or reports on protests during the forthcoming summit of the International Monetary Fund, to be held in Singapore in September.
Cherian George, a professor of communication at Singapore's Nanyang Technological University, says the Newspapers and Printing Presses Act gives the government broad powers, although it has used those powers selectively.
"The law is written in rather sweeping terms, so a newspaper can be deemed to be interfering in domestic politics," he said. "In practice, though, the government has used this legislation in cases where publications have not given it the unedited right of reply."
News organizations that criticize Singapore's government have faced tough penalties. The government is renowned for initiating lawsuits and blocking advertising or circulation to control coverage of the city-state. In recent years, the International Herald Tribune and Far Eastern Economic Review have had their circulation cut, or paid steep fines after losing lawsuits in Singapore.