The media in Singapore are heavily regulated by the government through direct and indirect political, legal and structural systems of control. The country has heavily concentrated media, with the two umbrella companies, Singapore Press Holdings and MediaCorp, owning all dailies, television and radio channels. Though officially operating as public-listed companies, they are linked to the government and maintain a pro-government stance. Apart from the presence of a host of laws that directly interfere with freedom of expression, there also exist extralegal forms of control. The boundary between the media and the government is weak, with people from one easily moving in to the other. Many editors and senior journalists of the mainstream English daily Straits Times have held important positions in the government, run by the ruling political party People’s Action Party (PAP). This system of control has resulted in a tame media that do not encourage diversity of ideas. This can be attributed to political apathy among people and the absence of a vibrant public sphere in Singapore, which is a cause of concern. Among other challenges faced by the media is the decrease in advertising revenues, which often make them vulnerable to the pressure of advertisers. This also explains the commercial character of the mainstream media. The Internet is relatively free and witnesses independent commentaries on pertinent issues. Despite the presence of laws that can crack down the medium, the government has adopted a softer stance towards Internet compared to the mainstream media.
Media Accountability System
Singapore is yet to witness internationally recommended media accountability systems like code of ethics for journalists or a press council. Editors of mainstream dailies so far have not been receptive to the idea of an ombudsperson, an issue that has been raised in the past by varied stakeholders. However, the country in recent times has witnessed the emergence of online citizen journalism groups that make regular attempts to critique news reports published by the mainstream media, and even address the gaps left by the mainstream media. These include issues like the common resentment against Singapore’s dependence on foreign labour, the plight of poor migrant workers and elderly citizens that rarely find voice in the mainstream media.
With the proliferation of the new media, blogger groups like The Online Citizen (TOC), Yawning Bread and Fridae (the last two cater specifically to the country’s booming gay community) have emerged as sites of alternative discourse on important socio-political issues like domestic politics, rights of gays and senior citizens. The Online Citizen (TOC), a virtual community of Singaporeans, routinely monitors and evaluates the mainstream media’s (The Straits Times, Today and Channel News Asia) coverage of news. Leong Sze Hian of TOC said that the online forum indirectly exerts pressure on the mainstream media by giving due attention to controversial issues like unemployment statistics and healthcare of senior citizens that are otherwise neglected by the latter: in many instances the latter have been forced to give space to these issues after they became a point of debate on the Internet to look credible before the public. Andrew Loh, the chief editor of TOC, added that if people start reading news on the Internet that are not reported by the mainstream media, the latter would lose credibility. This can create pressure on the mainstream media to change for better. Loh also added that as blogger-cum-activists they also conduct surveys and mobilise public opinions on significant issues through signature campaigns and protest at the Speakers’ Corner.
Statutory and democratic reforms are the first step of crating the requisite environment, where the mainstream media can be accountable to the people. This includes the amendment of restrictive laws like the Newspaper Printing Presses Act (NPPA), Internal Security Act (ISA) and defamation. Nominated Member of Parliament Viswa Sadasivan noted that without these statutory shifts and changes, the media in Singapore cannot afford to be independent and thus accountable to the public. The licensing requirements of the newspaper, radio and television also need to be reviewed to make the mainstream media credible. Cherian George, former journalist of The Straits Times and media scholar, has written in his website (in reference to the extension of the polling day ban) that as long as the mainstream media in the country are constrained by licensing, people would require alternative sources of news for a complete picture. (http://journalism.sg/2009/12/01/pre-election-cooling-off-period-should-not-freeze-citizen-journalism/). The independence and credibility of the judiciary, which have especially been questioned in regard to the outcomes of defamation cases involving the government and members of the opposition party and foreign publications, also need to reaffirmed. Chief Justice of Singapore Chan Sek Keong in a commentary on the website http://journalism.sg/ (http://journalism.sg/2010/03/16/independent-judiciary-requires-respect-and-support-of-public/) has emphasised the importance of fair and objective criticism of the judicial decisions to enhance accountability and greater discipline of decision-making. Thus there should be restraint in the usage of mechanisms like the doctrine of contempt of court. This power needs to be exercised judiciously and should not be used to regulate the right of free, fair and reasonable criticism of the judiciary and judicial decisions. Certain changes are also required to be ushered in the socio-political culture of the country. Sadasivan added in his interview that enough space should be created for vibrant civil society groups that can monitor the country’s record in relevant issues like human rights, press freedom and economic performance. While civil society groups have so far been restricted only to welfare issues in the country, they should be allowed to play an activist role. The mainstream media can be monitored by such groups, help up in case of inadequate coverage of certain issues and thus be encouraged to be accountable and responsible to the community at large.Back to top