Singapore journalist on self-censorship: we can’t be controversial, we have to play the game
In this interview, a former reporter for broadcaster and publisher MediaCorp, who wished to remain anonymous, talks to Mumbrella about one of the most sensitive issues for the media in Singapore – self-censorship.
Mumbrella’s Asia editor Robin Hicks spoke to a reporter who covered the last elections about how to play the news-getting game in Singapore, being labelled a ‘government mouthpiece’, and what the new regime for news websites really means.
It is said that Singaporeans learn from a very early age what what is politically acceptable to say in public. If true, would you say that this self-censorship is taken by young journalists into news rooms in Singapore?
A long-standing part of our social education is that there are certain things you have to treat sensitively, for the sake of racial harmony and societal stability. But at school, we were never told in an overt way that we could not comment on race or religion. It was only after I had studied overseas, in Australia, that I really became aware that there was such a thing as ‘OB markers’ [a term first used in 1991 by the then foreign minister George Yeo, to describe the boundaries for political discourse in Singapore].
The internet changed everything. Singaporeans were shown a different view of our media and how it works. Foreign commentators were saying our media is repressed. That it’s a government controlled monopoly. But I already knew, as most people did, that there was a gap in how our political news was being reported.
As a young reporter starting out, I was conscious that I might be controlled. I was concerned that I would not be able to do good journalism. But I had come back to Singapore from overseas because I felt that I could not change the country I love as an outsider. And I guess I was quite idealistic then, as were many of my peers. I was determined not to self-censor. But with the way the mainstream press works in Singapore, in some ways self-censorship is inevitable.
Have you ever been told by your editors that there are some stories you cannot pursue as a journalist, because the subject matter is too sensitive?
None of my editors have ever said that I could not write about a certain issue.
I remember doing a story on the fluoridation of water in Singapore. Water fluoridation was a sensitive topic, as its benefits were debatable. I sent an email to the water authority with some questions. They shot back saying I was not to report on the issue – because water is a strategic resource, and I was supposed to be writing about how fluoride was good for us, if at all.
My editor was actually pleased that I was pursuing such a sensitive story. She didn’t tell me not to cover it. But I could not get an official source to go on the record. No one would talk to me.
In 2011, I covered the elections. The way I was told to cover it was in an eyes-on-the-ground way. To not criticize any political party, but to follow a political figure around for a day, one from the PAP [the ruling party] another from the main opposition, write a profile on them, and let the reader judge for themselves.
There are always different ways to report the news, and this is the approach you have to take as a journalist in Singapore.
The authorities will come down on you if the government is put in a bad light. You have to learn how to play the game. Yes, you can call that self-censorship. But you have to understand the context of the society you’re in. You can’t be controversial. Otherwise you won’t be able operate. It’s as simple as that. You can’t burn bridges. If you do, you will be seen as out to get people.
If you ask a minister a question in a press conference, they never give you the answer you want. Politicians in Singapore are very adept at skirting issues. And in the story you write, you would never say that a politician avoided the question if you want to be invited to the next press conference.
As journalists, we hate the term self-censorship. We want a free press. We want freedom of information. But the media in Singapore is a machine. A set of formulas. A system that will throw out those who don’t operate within its rules. We find a way to cover stories in our own way. It is not worth being controversial for the sake of it.
Journalism in Singapore is not as mature as in other countries. But I would argue that our readers are not ready for aggressive journalism yet.
In a book by James Gomez called ‘Self-censorship: Singapore’s shame’, which was published in 2000 (but not in Singapore), the writer claims that Singaporeans get defensive about the idea that the self censor. Do you feel that the same applies to journalists in the mainstream press?
Journalists here are usually apologists for our media. I certainly used to be. Critics like to call mainstream Singapore media brown-nosers or government mouthpieces, and of course, I used to get very defensive about it because I was part of one of these organisations.
I don’t think they appreciated that I had given up the opportunity to earn more money in another field, to work 24-7 and rarely see my family or friends to do this job, which is by no means easy.
People don’t realise that the media is so limited in so many ways. Sources would tell you things, but they would always say ‘don’t quote me’. If someone tells you something in confidence, you hope that one day they will tell you something that you can publish on the record.
People would say to me, ‘why didn’t you ask the minister this question?’ Well, we did. But there’s only so much a story can contain if a minister answers a question in five different ways that doesn’t really answer it at all.
If mainstream journalists in this country are really honest with themselves, there is a level of self-censorship that has to happen. And of course I am not naming myself in this article, which I suppose is self-censorship too.
I can understand why our reporting is seen as unbalanced and unfair, since we only have two official media outlets [MediaCorp and Singapore Press Holding]. But it’s difficult to compare us to the US, Australia or Europe. In those countries, the media has a political agenda. Either of the left or right.
When I covered the elections, I wanted to cover all sides of the story. There were more political parties coming out to make a stand. It was an interesting time, and I felt the way the elections were covered by the local press had improved. It still wasn’t ideal, but it had got better.
What impact do you feel social media, particularly Singapore’s blogging scene, has had on the way the mainstream press reports political news?
Social media has impacted readers more than the mainstream press, which has been very slow to wake up to it. SPH is a dinosaur that has the same old school views as some ministers. They think that everything that’s written by bloggers and elsewhere online is junk. And to be fair, a lot of what is written online is. But then bloggers and activist groups like The Online Citizen don’t have access to official data. They’re not allowed to go to press conferences. So it’s hard for them to generate news. They can only really offer commentary. But it’s good that they’re out there with an alternative point of view.
I don’t think the mainstream press has been changed by social media or the internet much. Yes, they do more live updates, play videos clips and make use of the access they get by putting stuff online. But not as well as they could.
On the polling day that the elections results came out, a news anchor on Channel NewsAsia [MediaCorp's rolling news channel] was waiting for the news of the result to come through, and she was reading out updates from a Twitter feed. It was ridiculous and I can remember laughing at the TV screen. Twitter was getting the news out faster than an official news channel. The station was dubbed Channel NewsLater.
It was clear that the mainstream press had not really caught on. Although to be fair in Singapore you can’t just go online and say the opposition has won. You have to verify, verify, verify. Otherwise you could get into serious trouble. It’s ok for a blogger or a Tweeter to be wrong. It’s not ok for Channel NewsAsia to be wrong.
What sort of trouble?
Look at what happened to Val Chua [a former journalist for Mediacorp-run TODAY newspaper, who was sacked for reporting on comments made Lee Kuan Yew about Britain's National Health Service when his wife had a stroke in London in 2003]. She reported the story. It was very innocent. The story was not inaccurate. The thing is, the journalists had been told retrospectively to leave out certain aspects and quotes, but Val reported these. And as a result of that story she was seconded to a quiet corner of the news room, and did no reporting for a number of years.
What impact do you feel the Media Development Authority’s new licensing regime for news websites will have on political reporting in Singapore?
When the ruling was announced, there was the inevitable backlash. Then a clarification. Then a bit of backtracking. That happens a lot in Singapore.
It’s very unclear how the rules will impact political reporting, if at all. But it gives the government a weapon – a backup plan, an edge if something goes wrong.
But it’s childish. It shows that the government is really uncomfortable with what’s going on online – that they cannot deal with the chaos and the questions that the internet hits them with.
It looks repressive, and it has the potential to be. But our media laws already are repressive. Newspapers already need a license to publish. But I think it would be very unwise to act on these rules. The MDA does not want to be seen to be closing down sites.
Where do you see Singapore’s mainstream press in five years’ time, based on the way the current state of affairs and the way the future of media looks to you?
If it doesn’t change, the mainstream media in Singapore will lose its footing.
My peers in the press whom I know personally are great people. They are fair minded and decent. And now they are being promoted into management positions. I hope they stay the same as I know them to be, ask questions that no one dares to ask, with an understanding that there has to be change. Otherwise they risk losing any shred of credibility that the Singapore press has. What a journalist does not write is louder and clearer than what they do write, and Singaporeans are already very sceptical of what’s written in the press.
But now journalists are blogging more, and they are being given a bit more leeway. If they’re not, then something will give. Because it is not helpful if this ‘political awareness’ gets to a stage where all people want to do is rebel, just for the sake of rebelling.
A lot of political reporting in Singapore is seen as government press releases, and that’s not healthy for society. The way things are changing, people are reading a lot deeper into reports in the press. Journalists no longer exist in a silo. What is reported in the mainstream press will be compared to other reports on blogs or in international commentary. The spotlight does not always fall on how Singapore is doing economically, but on our media and politics too.
There are some really good commentators out there, who are not from the established press. They are quoted online and their views are widely shared. They are increasingly seen to have more credibility than the press. That’s the reality Singapore’s media needs to wake up to.