Regulation: Legal and Beyond
The legal regulatory framework affecting the media in Singapore can be described as rule of law rather than rule of men – a system where laws seek to minimise discretionary power of individuals and an independent court interprets the constitution. However, at the same time the Singaporean system does accommodate features of the framework of rule of men (that is common in dictatorial regimes), giving enough grants to individuals (the government and its appointees) to exercise their discretion. While the constitution protects the citizens’ right to freedom of expression, it also imposes restrictions on that right. These restrictive conditions include national security, public morality, contempt of court, defamation, incitement and friendly relations with other countries. While these restrictions to freedom of expression are common in most countries, in Singapore constitutional litigation is not known to question its laws. The Ministry of Information, Communications and the Arts imposes laws and regulations that can affect the media through the Media Development Authority (MDA), an apex body formed from the merge of Singapore Broadcasting Authority, Films and Publications Department and Singapore Film Commission. The MICA and the MDA, rather than the courts, reserve the decision-making power. There remains no provision of judicial review of the decisions made by the MICA and the MDA, which are administrative bodies controlled by the ruling party.
Newspaper Printing Presses Act (NPPA)
The Newspaper Printing Presses Act (NPPA) and the Undesirable Publications Acts are the laws that directly affect the print media. NPPA is a British colonial law, which was introduced in 1920, and it legalised pre-censorship of publications. It was amended in 1974 by the current People’s Action Party (PAP)-led government to end family ownership of newspapers and to make it mandatory for all newspapers to become public listed companies. This law also makes it a requirement for publishers to obtain permit from the MICA to print and publish a publication. The government ensures indirect control in the ownership of newspapers through the concept of management shares - the holders of these shares have more voting power than ordinary shareholders. NPPA states that “no management shares shall be issued or transferred except to citizens of Singapore or corporations who or which have been granted the written approval of the Minister”. By retaining the power to select the holders of management shares, the government therefore can indirectly control the key appointments, like that of the editor of a newspaper. Many past and present editors of the The Straits Times, the prestigious English broadsheet of the country, have been associated with the government. Thus the NPPA enables the government to retain control of the print media, without directly interfering into the daily editorial activities. The restrictions on ownership ensure that there is no competition for the mainstream print media. Thus an alternative source of discourse is absent. (Source: Article 19 and MDA: http://journalism.sg/2010/03/12/government-introduces-cooling-off-period-bill-for-elections/)
Undesirable Publications Act
This act grants the Minister the power to prohibit importation, sale or publication of publications that might be contrary to public interest. According to this act, a publication is objectionable if it consists of items dealing with matters of “sex, horror, crime, cruelty, violence or the consumption of drugs or other intoxicating substances” in a way that may be “injurious” to public good. It also extends to matters of race and religion that can cause enmity, hatred, ill will and hostility between different religious groups. Thus this law retains the provision to restrict the publication of anything dealing with matters of religion and sex.
The broadcast and online media are regulated by the Broadcasting Act and the Media Development Authority (MDA) Act. The Broadcast Act allows the MDA the power to grant, modify, suspend and cancel broadcasting service licenses and issue codes of ethics for broadcasting programmes and advertisements. This also makes it mandatory for the broadcasting company to seek the approval of the Authority to “appoint a person as its chief executive officer or director, or as the chairman of its board of directors.” This is one of the provisions that can allow government interference in the functioning of a broadcasting company. Besides, this law ensures the government the right to cancel broadcasting licenses, which can instill a fear of retaliation of what one telecasts and thus encourage self-censorship among media companies.
Internal Security Act
This Act grants special power to the Minister to prohibit “subversive publications” that may cause “incitement to violence”, cause “disobedience to law”, “breach of peace”, “promote feelings of hostility”, or harm “the national interest, public order, or security of Singapore.” The conditions of “national interest,” “public order” and “security” of Singapore need clarification since they can be used to censor political discourse and criticism of the ruling party.
In Singapore defamation is criminalized under the Penal Code, which exposes the accused of upto two years of imprisonment and/ or fine. The Defamation Act covers broadcasting by means of telecommunication, newspapers and words signifying pictures, visual images and other methods of signifying meanings. The Defamation law is effectively used by the government to prevent dissenting views and control those who express such views. It has been used very frequently against foreign publications and opposition leaders. The fact that defamatory statements published during election are not deemed as privileged expose opposition leaders to damages. The outcomes of defamation cases have most often been in the favour of the members of government, which also has led to the questioning of the credibility of the judiciary in Singapore by various stakeholders. Exorbitant amounts are charged as defamation damages. Worker’s Party leader and Member of Parliament, JB Jeyaretnam, was declared bankrupt after failing to pay the defamation damages. The Internet also falls under the purview of Defamation Act.
Amendment of Parliamentary Elections Act
The Parliamentary Elections Act, which bans campaigning on the day of the poll, was amended in March 2010 to extend the campaigning ban to the eve of the polling day. Seeking to regulate campaigning of political parties, this ban, however, exempts news of only the licensed media. Thus the move of amendment can be interpreted as a mechanism of controlling the flourishing online citizen journalist groups of Singapore, which do not fall within the category of licensed media. These groups that over the last few years have emerged as the vital source of alternative news and views may be affected by the extension of the ban since they are not individually licensed and not recognised as publishers of news under the Elections Act. The party political broadcast, however, is allowed on the eve of the polling day. Free airtime is given to the main parties on television channels as part of these broadcasts. But, reflecting the sophisticated and subtle control mechanism of the government, each political party is allocated time in proportion to the number of seats they contest. Thus the ruling party, which contest the maximum number of seats, ends up with the giant share of the airtime. (http://journalism.sg/2010/03/12/government-introduces-cooling-off-period-bill-for-elections/)
Out-of-bounds (OB) Markers
In addition to laws defined in the constitution, the authorities control by a unique mechanism known as out-of-bound (OB) markers. These OB markers have not been defined by the government: Loosely explained, the OB markers implicitly demarcate matters that are off limit for further discussion. The presence of the OB markers is determined when they are trespassed; that is when the government may respond by public rebuke without resorting to legal means. The government warnings that may follow as a result of crossing the OB markers often pose the threat of legal action.
Beyond Legislative Regulation
Apart from legal regulations, there are also forms of informal control, adopted by the government to tame the media. P.N. Balji, former editor of Today, said in an interview that ministers and government officials pay regular visits to newspaper offices, especially that of The Straits Times, for informal meetings with editors and journalists at various levels of hierarchy. These meetings also double as occasions where the latter are often ideologically convinced of the government’s vision of the role of the media and thus encourage reporters to voluntarily follow the state-dictated line of news coverage. The stringent legal regulation of the media clearly instills an element of fear of reprisal that contributes to the practice of self-censorship among journalists and thus prevents critical discourse of pertinent socio-political issues of domestic importance. While the mainstream broadsheet The Straits Times is viewed with credibility when it comes to reporting foreign affairs and other issues, the same reputation does not extend to the coverage of domestic politics. Citizen journalism groups like The Online Citizen point out that the mainstream media fail to critically analyse government policies on important socio-political issues like foreign talent, healthcare, housing, inflation and welfare of the elderly population. In response to the criticism that the government controls the media in a way that multiple views are suppressed, David T.E. Lim, acting minister for Information, Communication and the Arts, said (in a separate speech posted on MDA website) that the letters to the editor in The Straits Times’ Forum page reflect views on almost every conceivable aspect of government policy.http://app.mica.gov.sg/Default.aspxBack to top