Press Freedom and Fake News in Singapore

Since its proclamation at the United Nations General Assembly in 1993, World Press Freedom Day has been commemorated on 3 May all over the world each year. According to UNESCO, it is a day to “celebrate the fundamentals of press freedom, to evaluate press freedom around the world, to defend the media from attacks on their independence and to pay tribute to journalists who have lost their lives in the exercise of their profession”. In commemoration of World Press Freedom this year, Community Action Network and Function 8 organised Press Freedom and Fake News in Singapore which took place at Agora on Saturday, 5 May 2018 to a packed audience.

The five speakers spoke in 2 panels, moderated by independent film maker Lynn Lee who is also a member of Community Action Network.

The first panel had Kirsten Han from online news site New Naratif, Daniel Yap who is the former publisher of the now defunct current affairs site The Middle Ground, and Braema Mathi, a former President of human rights group MARUAH. They talked about legal restrictions, foreign funding, the lack of solidarity amongst journalists, and how the perceived divide between mainstream journalism and online journalism have affected media freedom in Singapore.

When asked about the government’s allegations that New Naratif was backed by foreigners with political agendas, in particular its acceptance of a grant from the Open Societies Foundation, Ms Han clarified that New Naratif was meant to be a website covering news and opinions on South East Asia, and there will be donors and members who are from the region. “It doesn’t make sense to have only members who are Singaporeans for a site that covers the region,” she said. In addition, the lack of grants for independent journalism or any forms of human rights work provided locally and the importance of respecting freelancers and their professionalism was the factor that led to the acceptance of the grant. “Nobody should be expected to work for free… We decided that that is more important to us to be responsible for our freelancers so that we can keep producing professional level content for readers.”

“Funding was a major consideration at The Middle Ground as well,” shared Mr Yap. Despite having the initial capital to operate a fairly sizeable operation, The Middle Ground closed because they were not able to sustain it financially. Mr Yap pointed to IMDA’s requirement for details of all donors, regardless of the amount donated, to be provided when the website held an open call for patrons. “This had definitely created a barrier,” he said. Furthermore, one needs to find ways to convince private entities that they would benefit from investing in independent media initiatives, which isn’t always easy. He agreed that there will always be willing donors, but there aren’t enough donors to sustain an ecosystem of journalism that is robust with diversity in opinions, models and types of publication.

Responding to the question about why Singapore is “so allergic to foreign funding,” Ms Mathi said, “They are trying to ensure that none of us are going to be influenced by any agenda perceived or real, coming from any foreign source.”  She added that there seem to be a sentiment that foreign parties only wish to influence the political dynamics in a country when “in truth, there are many other ways in which an influence can take place,” such as through the economy, culture, and the environment.” Making a salient point about the lack of funding and how we can overcome that, Ms Mathi said “How long can one work for free? It is definitely a togetherness, and solidarity as Kirsten kept saying, not only within the profession or within the aspirants to the profession but for everyone to come together to say that I believe in it, I am willing to put the money in, no questions asked because there is a trust I am giving you. I think that’s important.”

On the second panel, Dr Thum Ping-tjin and Teo Soh Lung spoke about Fake News and the Mainstream Media in Singapore. They talked about why they participated in the the Select Committee consultations on Deliberate Online Falsehoods, in which Dr Thum was questioned for 6 hours by Home Affairs and Law Minister Mr K Shanmugam, and what they meant when they said that the government had participated in generating fake news.

Despite being aware that the Select Committee was a public exercise to legitimise the eventual passing of the legislation, Dr Thum said that it was an opportunity for opinions to be heard. “If the government offers you a chance to be part of a democratic process, you have to take it. If you don’t take it, then they say ‘Well why should we give you any sort of democratic consultation in the future?’” However he felt that what happened during his hearing delegitimised the process. He also expressed disappointment at how the discussion was only focused on some minor points in his submission and how the Select Committee hearing and the events following it were meant to demonise him and his reputation. He expressed his concern, which was also included in his submission, that in the event the legislation on fake news gets passed, it might not include adequate details on how to deal with the event if fake news is produced by the government in future. “What happens if someone like Donald Trump becomes a Prime Minister? How do we stop that person? That is a real concern for me.”

Dr Thum also took the opportunity to run through the details behind the open letter signed by 284 academics, in response to a question from the audience. He said that it was an act of solidarity organised by Dr Lee Jones, a former colleague who is now at Queen Mary University of London who had approached him to ask how he could help.

“I said, ‘Do what you see best, do what you see fit,’ ” said Dr Thum. He further clarified that his involvement was chiefly to provide Dr Jones with contact details of academics who he is acquainted with. “But of course he did contact me to make sure it wasn’t going to make things worse for me.” On the significance of the fact that there were more foreign signatories, Dr Thum attributed it to the possibility of self censorship. He said “I was working at NUS and I was told by someone in confidence that I can’t work in Singapore anymore. Now if that can happen to me, it can happen to everyone else and so I am not surprised that people who are working in Singapore experience that fear and exercise self censorship.”

Explaining why she participated in the Select Committee hearings, Ms Teo said “Function 8 did a submission, and well we volunteered to appear if we would be called. And we did this submission because of all the excitement of Kirsten and PJ, and CAN. Everybody was so excited to get into this democratic mode” said Ms Teo.

Being a former detainee of Operation Spectrum which happened in 1987, she described how the government and the media worked together to generate falsehoods about the detainees’ intentions behind their work in the community. “We were there in the cold room not knowing that these things were in our newspapers,” she said. Had she known about the publication of these allegations, she would have a very different view of what happened and might not have “cooperated so nicely.” She told the audience that she did not know what a Marxist was at the time of her arrest.

“I’m that ignorant,” she said. She also revealed that she had asked her case office “Mr Lim, what is Communist United Front?” after reading the Grounds of Detention which mentioned that she was using the Communist United Front tactics to try and subvert the government using violent means. “He was shocked that I didn’t even know what this term means.”

Besides her own experience, Ms Teo added that the government has continued to maintain allegations against former detainees in their public statements as recent as 2011, claiming that these detainees were detained for engaging in subversive activities. To date, the government continues to deny any demands of fair trials for the former detainees, and have stood by the allegations that they were rightly detained.