Press un­der pres­sure

Southeast Asia Globe - - Panorama - Tom O'Con­nell

Sin­ga­pore is tight­en­ing the reins even fur­ther on a press that crit­ics say has never been free. So why is the city-state crack­ing down now? Re­porters With­out Bor­ders’ Asia-Pa­cific di­rec­tor Daniel Bas­tard says Sin­ga­pore’s “squeaky-clean im­age” is off to a rough start in 2018

Re­porters With­out Bor­ders re­cently de­clined an invitation by Sin­ga­pore to pro­vide ev­i­dence of fake news at a public hear­ing. Why?

Given the mea­sures and prac­tices be­ing en­forced in Sin­ga­pore, we have ev­ery rea­son to be­lieve that this pro­posal for a [sud­den] dia­logue might be po­lit­i­cally ex­ploited – at the ex­pense of the sub­stance of the is­sue.

We don't use the ex­pres­sion “fake news” or “de­lib­er­ate on­line false­hood”, as the Se­lect Com­mit­tee calls it, be­cause it's way too vague a no­tion. The draft laws that pre­tend to com­bat it around the world are not sat­is­fac­tory – and this is true for Sin­ga­pore or Malaysia, as well as for Brazil, Italy or France. A demo­cratic govern­ment shouldn't de­fine what is true or false. We be­lieve this sub­ject mat­ter is far too im­por­tant for democ­racy and the rule of law to run the risk to be in­stru­men­talised, hence our reser­va­tions about pro­vid­ing ev­i­dence.

Sin­ga­pore has not had a his­tory of press free­dom, so why does the govern­ment feel a need to crack down?

The Kep­pel O&M scan­dal, in­clud­ing a $50 mil­lion bribe [which re­sulted in a $442 mil­lion fine], is a shock for many Sin­ga­pore­ans. In a coun­try where cor­po­rate gov­er­nance is closely in­ter­twined with po­lit­i­cal power, it is very likely that the govern­ment doesn't want… fur­ther leaks con­cern­ing its busi­ness prac­tices. The con­text is com­pli­cated for Prime Min­is­ter Lee Hsien Loong, since Sin­ga­pore was rocked by the reve­la­tion of an ex­plo­sive feud within the Lee fam­ily. These are two el­e­ments that can ex­plain why Sin­ga­pore wants to be able to de­fine what is true and what is false – and crack down on those who de­liver un­de­sired in­for­ma­tion.

How im­por­tant is press free­dom to South­east Asia?

Press free­dom is vi­tal to South­east Asia's devel­op­ment. It's de­clin­ing in Cam­bo­dia, Malaysia, Myan­mar, the Philip­pines, Sin­ga­pore and Viet­nam. Laos and Brunei are black holes of in­for­ma­tion, and the sit­u­a­tion in In­done­sia and Thai­land is still deeply pre­oc­cu­py­ing… South­east Asia's gov­ern­ments should… create a global en­vi­ron­ment to foster press free­dom. They will lose eco­nomic and po­lit­i­cal cred­i­bil­ity if they don't show ef­forts to en­hance the free­dom to in­form. –

News­pa­pers in four dif­fer­ent lan­guages for sale in Sin­ga­pore. The city-state is tight­en­ing its grip on the na­tion's his­tor­i­cally stran­gled press

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