Cracking down on its already restricted press freedom

Singapore is tightening the reins even further on a press that critics say has never been free. So why is the city-state cracking down now? Reporters Without Borders' Asia-Pacific director Daniel Bastard says Singapore's "squeaky-clean image" is off to a rough start in 2018

Tom O'Connell
May 2, 2018
Cracking down on its already restricted press freedom
Newspapers and magazines for sale in Singapore. The city-state is tightening its grip on the nation's historically strangled press

Reporters Without Borders recently declined an invitation by Singapore to provide evidence of fake news at a public hearing. Why?

Given the measures and practices being enforced in Singapore, we have every reason to believe that this proposal for a [sudden] dialogue might be politically exploited – at the expense of the substance of the issue.

We don’t use the expression “fake news” or “deliberate online falsehood”, as the Select Committee calls it, because it’s way too vague a notion. The draft laws that pretend to combat it around the world are not satisfactory – and this is true for Singapore or Malaysia, as well as for Brazil, Italy or France. A democratic government shouldn’t define what is true or false. We believe this subject matter is far too important for democracy and the rule of law to run the risk to be instrumentalised, hence our reservations about providing evidence.

Singapore has not had a history of press freedom, so why does the government feel a need to crack down?

The Keppel O&M scandal, including a $50 million bribe [which resulted in a $442 million fine], is a shock for many Singaporeans. In a country where corporate governance is closely intertwined with political power, it is very likely that the government doesn’t want… further leaks concerning its business practices. The context is complicated for Prime Minister Lee Hsien Loong, since Singapore was rocked by the revelation of an explosive feud within the Lee family. These are two elements that can explain why Singapore wants to be able to define what is true and what is false – and crack down on those who deliver undesired information.

How important is press freedom to Southeast Asia?

Press freedom is vital to Southeast Asia’s development. It’s declining in Cambodia, Malaysia, Myanmar, the Philippines, Singapore and Vietnam. Laos and Brunei are black holes of information, and the situation in Indonesia and Thailand is still deeply preoccupying… Southeast Asia’s governments should… create a global environment to foster press freedom. They will lose economic and political credibility if they don’t show efforts to enhance the freedom to inform.

Daniel Bastard is the Asia-Pacific director of the France-based Reporters Without Borders (Reporters Sans Frontières, or RSF), a nonprofit NGO that supports transparency and press freedom.

Read more articles