Podcast: Press Freedom and a Press in Denial

On the last day of October this year, Yahoo! Singapore published a news story that wasn’t surprising in its content, but that it was published at all.

The article claimed that Li Xueying, a former political editor at The Straits Times, had been transferred to another desk because government officials were unhappy with some of the political coverage under her watch. The Straits Times is the country’s only daily English-language general news broadsheet, and is sometimes referred to as the country’s “paper of record”.

The paper’s chief editor, Warren Fernandez, responded swiftly to the story. He called the claims “fanciful”, saying that the transfer was part of a regular reshuffle in the newsroom.

It was a defence described by journalism professor and former Straits Times journalist Cherian George as “conformism and self-censorship at an advanced level.” According to George, industry insiders had known the story about Li’s transfer for months.

“Instead of struggling to be free, it struggles to be seen as free,” George wrote in a blog post about The Straits Times.

It’s no secret that the press in Singapore is not free. The city-state ranks 151 out of 180 in Reporters Without Borders’ latest World Press Freedom Index.

The government, dominated by the People’s Action Party since 1959, gets to have a say in key appointments in mainstream media newsrooms, and the mainstream media usually toes the official line in reporting on Singapore, particularly when it comes to political stories.

This issue of government control and self-censorship is open knowledge. This year’s Singapore Theatre Festival, organised by a local theatre company, was even headlined by a play, written by another former Straits Times journalist, about the lack of press freedom in Singapore.

This is news to no one… except, apparently, the mainstream media itself. Senior editors in both the mainstream print and broadcast media have repeatedly insisted that they are “fair, balanced and objective”, and aren’t pro-government.

The mainstream media’s consistent state of denial makes it difficult for any movement for press freedom to take root in Singapore.

It’s difficult for individual journalists, such as myself, or even individual Singaporeans who care about the state of the press, to build any momentum behind a campaign for press freedom in Singapore when the mainstream media—who employs the largest number of journalists in the country—not only refuses to acknowledge that their freedom is circumscribed, but actively insists that things are fine. In fact, in an environment where the mainstream media might actually be used to take aim at activists and independent news sites, the mainstream press can sometimes themselves become instruments in the suppression of press freedom.

This is not an environment that makes it easy to build solidarity within the Singapore press corps. Mainstream media journalists and editors are generally silent about their experiences, but so are foreign outlets, who might figure that issues about denied visas and government refusals to comment on stories are simply not worth their while to bring up in a place like Singapore, especially when there might be bigger fires to fight elsewhere.

Where other countries might have press associations or foreign correspondents’ clubs that speak out against curbs to the freedom of the press, such groups in Singapore also tend to stay quiet.

There are, of course, many issues with the media and journalism worldwide, and much of the criticism of the industry is totally warranted. Yet a free, independent press is still a crucial component of a functioning, mature democracy. This is something that Singapore hasn’t had for a long time.

It’s a frustrating situation for Singaporeans who want better reporting, better stories, better information. We deserve better than what we’re reading and seeing when we buy a newspaper or watch the evening news.

But there’s still hope. The fact that this story was leaked to Yahoo! Singapore from within The Straits Times suggests that there are people in the mainstream media who have had enough; that they want more public scrutiny and attention on these opaque shenanigans in the newsroom.

Singaporeans, too, can continue to apply pressure on the mainstream media — to nudge it out of its Stockholm Syndrome — and on the government for clamping down on our right to free expression and information.

It isn’t in Singapore’s interest for the traditional media either to fail, or be turned into government propaganda outlets. But it seems that the fight for press freedom in Singapore will have to be fought to save the press not just from the authorities, but from itself.