Press Freedom & Democracy Forum

On 26 April 2019, CAPE and The Octant organised the Press Freedom & Democracy forum with Cherian George (Professor of Media Studies at Hong Kong Baptist University), Kirsten Han (Editor-in-Chief of New Naratif), and Tess Bacalla (Executive Director of Southeast Asia Press Alliance). A crowded full-house, the session was moderated by Jiang Haolie (Year 2, Yale-NUS) – CAPE’s coordinator.

Featuring frank and robust engagement, the discussions delved deep into broad issues such as the implications of upcoming fake news laws, the fundamental importance of public trust and government transparency, the conditions of press freedoms in Singapore and the region, and the prognosis for democracy and civil society in Southeast Asia.

This is a feature summary of key discussion points, based on notes taken by Isaac Neo (Year 4, NUS Political Science), edited by Haolie.


Press Freedoms in Singapore and the region

Cherian began with an opening overview of press freedoms in Singapore, contending the oft-cited Press Freedom ranking of 151st by Reporters Without Border, that while Singapore ranks closely with Mexico and Bangladesh, journalists in Singapore do not face the risk of political killings or arbitrary arrests. He argued that UNESCO’s methodology of tracking of media development may be a more useful as a benchmark, with multiple indices such as media freedom (the freedom of journalists from de jure reprisals on reportage), media independence (the autonomy of journalists to practice their craft without pressure from employers, etc), media pluralism (the representation and access of marginalised groups such as rural communities to media outlets).

Benchmarking Singapore’s performance against these indices, he stated that Singapore does well in media pluralism with a vibrant, untrammelled online landscape of information access, but fairs poorly in media independence and freedom. He identifies two main issues that impede Singapore’s media development: (1) an “extremely antiquated” and “third world”-style licensing regime where news outlets are beholden to state permissions, and (2) the use of defamation laws, where the damages are excessively high that they do more than just protect reputations, but also have chilling effects upon speech. This chilling effect is detrimental to discourse and accountability on issues of public interests – a concern that the UK acknowledged when they revamped their defamation laws in 2013, cognisant of the need to protect media freedoms in reportage on issues of public interest.

Cherian also spoke about how targeted censorship and calibrated coercion has been used effectively by Singapore for a long time, contrary to the stereotypical tropes of Orwellian censorship. Citing China, where its authoritarian regime is resilient as a result of switching from more extreme repression to more subtle and invisible forms, and Turkey where even with the preponderance of state power in jailing journalists, Erdogan is increasingly preferring economic coercion, Cherian argues that “stealth censorship” is discrete, effective, and preferred. Unlike literary tropes of authoritarianism, 21st-century authoritarians are not as concerned about thought control, they just want a certain degree of compliance. There is also restraint in use of state force so thus the majority of the population are not bothered by such interventions. Rather, the state just goes after “wholesalers” of dissent, not individuals, not entertainment, not satire (thus Mr Brown is allowed to continue blogging, but New Naratif is obstructed because of its threat as an organised media outlet). 

Tess and Kirsten broadly agreed with Cherian’s opening overview. Complementing the summary of Singapore’s experience of press freedoms, Tess spoke about how in SEAPA’s work monitoring repression against journalism across Southeast Asian countries, she often encounters public sentiments that press freedom are not thought of as “bread and butter” issues, in addition to the political violence meted out against the press. Such a sentiment is the result of the lack of understanding of the nuances and complexities of politics and participation in society. A plural free media, Tess staunchly proclaimed, are necessary elements in getting representation for marginalised groups, for meaningful discourse, and to counter misleading narratives from race, to class, to history and politics. Kirsten also agreed about the lack of public consciousness on civil liberties such as press freedom. She said that the narrative of “Asian Values” is often brought up, although it makes no sense, such as its claims that “Asians just want to follow rules and be oppressed”. She also brought up concerns about differences in media culture in Singapore and the rest of Southeast Asia, where in Cambodia where even when journalists face physical threats to their safety, they continue to doggedly pursue reporting on their government officials due to the expectation that it is the norms and duties of officials to respond to the press. Therein this example, Kirsten brought up her concerns about how internalised oppression in Singaporean society is far harder to uproot than the kind of oppression faced by the press and society in the rest of Southeast Asia.

The Fake News Bill

The elephant in the room was the Protection against Online Falsehood (POFMA) Bill, with an outpouring of questions from the audience, ranging from whether public outrage over the bill’s passage would be a core electoral issue, to whether POFMA merely codified existing restrictions that journalists already face in Singapore. A few audience members also challenged the speakers’ views on disinformation, dissenting that it is indeed a serious security threat, or that just idealistically depending on just press freedoms without powerful anti-disinformation laws would be effective against fake news.

Reproduced below is a summary of a few key discussions on POFMA:

  • Responding to dissent from an audience member that the threat of disinformation required heavy-handed laws, Cherian argued that the crux of the issue is not a crisis of truth, but rather a crisis of trust. He brought up examples of how high trust in German institutions impeded the effectiveness of Russian-sponsored social media disinformation, compared to the UK’s example in the Brexit vote.
  • Cherian also brought up consistent research findings across think tanks that it was fostering and protecting public trust in the media that was the best means of fighting disinformation, not censorship. Central to this was the element of public perceptions of press freedoms.  “Would ST, CNA do a better job in fighting fake news if they were given more press freedom? I can say with 98% confidence, yes.”
  • Industrial-strength malicious disinformation was agreed upon by speakers as the main threat, and that the government should be opening up discussions and sharing of best practices with think tanks and countries at the frontline of disinformation campaigns such as Germany and France. The current “shallow” discourse by the government and its approach, without apparent consultation with frontline actors, was noted by Cherian as a concern.
  • Kirsten asserted that with such extensive and powerful laws that the state already has, POFMA is not necessary. She also noted how the law’s definition of a “false statement as a statement that is false”, is tautological and vague, thus opening a loophole for potential abuse. 
  • Tess brought up how both the Philippines and Malaysia sought to reject their own fake news bills, citing countervailing concerns of democratic processes and civil liberties. She also noted how such censorship could instead backfire by giving powerful groups in society greater power to speak and set narratives at the expense of marginalised groups. Cherian also concurred, raising a hypothetical example of how governments censoring sensational disinformation creates greater distrust in the government, than in the facts.
  • Cherian disagreed with an audience member that POFMA would be a “vote loser”, stating that it is neither visceral enough nor outrageous enough to galvanise mass opposition, unlike for example, Aquino’s very public assassination. Additionally, press freedom is not a popular intrinsic issue, unless instrumentally linked to more “bread-and-butter” issues such as public corruption. Cherian also conjectured that the ball is in the Workers’ Party’s court in bringing up POFMA as an electoral issue.
  • Responding to a comment that while POFMA gave powers to the state to combat disinformation (to a perceived detriment of private citizens), private citizens have the Protection against Harassment Act which rebalances the inequality of power, Kirsten argued that it is inconceivable that anyone facing public criticisms by the Law Minister would dare to “POHA the government”.

Sustainable journalism

Many audience brought questions on how they may support and sustain independent journalist and alternate media. These are a summary of the discussion:

  • Kirsten spoke about how editors and managers surveyed readers and found that they did not necessarily subscribe to media outlets due to the news they were reporting, but more were willing to pay for subscriptions because they identified with the values of the media platform. This points to a need to ensure that journalists are part of the community and that members of the community have ownership of the stories that are being told. She said that “People need to feel that they have ownership of the media, and not just an elite platform that dictates to them”.
  • Cherian rallied that even as private citizens, we can ensure the media ecosystem is a healthy one by pushing for the legal space for increased press freedoms. He suggested writing to Members of Parliament calling for less paternalistic media policies.
  • Tess agreed and expanded upon Cherian’s rallying call, suggesting that with significant apathy among people in the region, and the work of advocating for press freedoms and for pushing boundaries should not just be confined to journalists. She also advocated that we should stop seeing ourselves as Filipinos or Singaporeans, and that we need to “start seeing ourselves as Southeast Asians” and realise that many local issues of press and rights carry over to the regional level.
  • Cherian also asserted that a more informed citizenry requires a Freedom of Information Act that can empower them to surveil officials. He argued that even China was more progressive with an official outlet to openly request for government information and data.

Is there hope?

All three speakers agreed that the groundswell of public debate and concern over the bill was an encouraging sight. Cherian noted how academics mobilising to issue and sign statements of concern on the bill, as well the growing sense of solidarity amongst Singaporeans to demand accountability, as positive developments. Tess concurred that she sees commitment, passion and determination of young Southeast Asians in their pushback against state interference in civil liberties. Kirsten as well noted how civil society has encouragingly become increasingly experienced in engaging in the processes, scrutiny and discussions on Parliamentary bills – unlike the Contempt of Court bill in 2016, where they took more than 2 weeks to prepare a response.

Concluding optimistically, Cherian said, “Such discourse to scrutinise legislation is an important thing if you believe in parliamentary democracy. This will inspire the government to make better laws next time that can stand up to such scrutiny.”


View more photos of the event here!

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