Comments on Singapore’s press rankings

28 Oct

In an address to members of the New York Bar Association, (reported by TODAY online)  the law minister of Singapore, Shanmugam, has claimed that the global rankings of press freedom in Singapore by organisations such as Reporters Without Borders and  Freedom House rankings does not reflect the actual reality.

According to him, the denunciation of press freedom in Singapore ‘sometimes reached levels “quite absurd and divorced from reality” ‘. He states that this does not gel with Singapore’s ranking which is often associated with military or failed states such as Guinea and Kenya (in RSF’s report) and Iraq (in Freedom House). This is further contrasted with Singapore’s  global interconnectedness (such as the internet), economic achievements and ‘rule of law’.

While Shanmugam was right to argue that Singapore is not suffering from internal instability, he has mistakenly conflated press freedom with the political climate. Even if both are often intimately related, it would be a mistake to claim that Singapore does not deserve the press rankings based on its political stability. Moreover, it is also necessary to study the methodology of the rankings. With RSF, the list is based on surveys handed out to human rights activists and reporters. This means that rankings are dependent on observers’ perception of press freedom in the country. Given Singapore’s history of defamation suits and jailing of dissident journalists, repressive media laws such as the Newspaper and Printing Presses Act and the mass media duopoly of the Singapore Press Holdings and Medicorp, it is not difficult to fathom the position it was being awarded.

In the news report, Shanmugam also claims that governmental policies have often been criticised though it reserves the right to respond with libel suits if it is accused of allegations (such as corruption). His argument however misses the point since defamation suits are a threat to the freedom of the press and expression. Moreover, these laws and actions also threaten whistleblowing behaviour which is important in any democratic  states to ensure government accountability. While members of the government  or any politician has the right to sue for defamation, it does not necessarily follow that these actions be used at the whims or fancy of anyone or organisation since they have the effect of silencing public dissent and debates. Therefore, it  can be argued that an open and democratic government should not use defamation suits nor repressive media laws even when dissenters accuse it of corruption. This is because these accusations are more likely to expose any shortcomings in the system. Moreover, whether the accusations turn out to be true or false (or otherwise), a public debate would generate greater civi participation, resolve the issue publicly and even grant more legitimacy to the government.

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