Constitutional law Right to freedom of speech and expression (Article 14)

Reflections on Press Freedom in Singapore

A stack of newspapers
Photograph by Daniel R Blume [CC-BY-SA-2.0],
via the Wikimedia Commons.
Dierdre Grace Morgan
Third Year LLB student
School of Law, SMU

PERSPECTIVES ON PRESS FREEDOM, a talk on international and local perspectives on press freedom, was held at the Singapore Management University on 3 September 2012. It featured Dr David Goldberg, Senior Honorary Visiting Fellow at the Institute of Computers and Communications Law, Queen Mary College, University of London; and Dr Cherian George, Associate Professor at the Wee Kim Wee School of Communication and Information, Nanyang Technological University. The session was chaired by Dr Jack Tsen-Ta Lee from the SMU School of Law.

Listening to the presentations by the three speakers, what stood out for me personally was Singapore’s unique state of media regulation. The traditional mainstream media is regulated under the Newspaper and Printing Presses Act (Cap 206, 2002 Rev Ed) (‘NPPA’) and the Broadcasting Act (Cap 28, 2012 Rev Ed). Under the NPPA, a newspaper publisher has to apply for a licence, which must be renewed annually and can be revoked at any time. Also, no newspaper can be published in Singapore except by a public company, and no individual can control 12% or more of a newspaper company without Government approval. In addition, with the two classes of shares the NPPA provides for, the Government effectively decides who gets a greater say in deciding a newspaper company’s directors and members of its staff. The NPPA also prohibits foreign ownership of a Singapore newspaper company.

The aggregate effect of this is that newspapers are left in the hands of commercial owners. The Government arguably does not directly intervene in the operations of newspaper companies in Singapore. Nonetheless, in light of the licensing requirements, and the fact that profitability is the main goal of a newspaper company, what results is a more-or-less ‘compliant’ press. This was detailed by Dr George in Chapter 2 of his latest book, Freedom from the Press (2012).

It is evident that the People’s Action Party (PAP) Government has significant powers to regulate the media under the existing law. However, in today’s political landscape, there is perhaps a widening gap between the Government’s legal powers as provided for in the statute books and its political clout to take drastic action under the NPPA and the Broadcasting Act, especially towards the more established media companies.

Several opposition parties have argued for this regulatory regime to be relaxed. However, it remains to be seen whether any government, even a non-PAP one, would have the will to cede control in this respect. If anything, it would probably be in response to exceptionally strong public sentiment, though this has not really featured so far in Singapore.

An Institute of Policy Studies survey conducted last year concluded that the 2011 general election was not an “Internet election”. In the survey, 70 per cent of the respondents cited mainstream media as their main source of information on the polls. This suggests that the mainstream media still enjoys a relatively high level of trust and credibility among the population.

One may ask whether the alternative new media, as it is today, is capable of replacing the mainstream media – arguably not. Dr George pointed out that the role of professional journalists cannot be completely filled by hobbyist bloggers. Bloggers may be experts in specific fields, and could offer refreshing perspectives on several issues. But for the day-to-day reporting of even the mundane occurrences, professionals are needed.

Today, Singaporeans in general do not seem to be clamouring for more press freedom. Perhaps until this happens, the existing regulation regime is unlikely to change significantly. An interesting question to consider is what if newspapers in Singapore went completely online? This does not seem entirely impossible, given how hard-copy circulation numbers in many developed countries are facing a steady downward trend. Casting the complications relating to ownership and control of the company aside, to me at least, it would probably be a daunting prospect in terms of regulation.

On the whole, Perspectives on Press Freedom was enlightening indeed. In the local context, it reinforced the complex relationship between the Government, media, and the public. To comprehend the existing state of affairs in its entirety, it is pertinent to look beyond the legislative framework of media regulation and draw the necessary inferences.

Dierdre Grace Morgan is Vice-President (Internal) of APolitical, SMU’s student political association.

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