Publishing Independent News in a State Controlled, but Very Wired, Media Environment
Singapore is a highly developed country with a prosperous economy and strong international trading links. Yet press freedom in the Southeast Asian country is lagging and the government has been accused of using fear to silence dissident voices. Freedom House qualifies freedom of the press in Singapore as “partly free," while the country ranked 137th out of 178 countries in Reporters Without Borders’ 2010 Press Freedom Index, below countries including Venezuela, Iraq, Egypt, and Zimbabwe.
Mainstream media is largely government-owned and there is little alternative media. As the host of a monthly radio program on Asian media put it, “Singapore’s mainstream media—newspapers, radio, and television—are well known to tow the government line when reporting domestic affairs.”
Under Article 14 of the Singapore Constitution, every citizen has the right to freedom of speech, expression, association, and peaceful assembly. However, these rights are then subjected to two clauses that give Parliament the power to impose restrictions on these rights in the interest of national security, foreign relations, public order, or morality.
“The 1st tier are the legislations passed by Parliament, which restrict freedom of expression. The 2nd tier of censorship are those imposed by government bodies that are authorized by law to draw up guidelines and policies pertaining to political expression. A key feature of this 2nd tier of censorship are the nontransparency and the nebulous nature of its implementation, which leads to a blurring of the the line of what is acceptable and nonacceptable speech. This in turn creates a climate where writers, bloggers, artists, and politicians self-censor their speech in order that they do not overstep boundaries. This climate of self-censorship forms the 3rd tier of censorship in Singapore.”
In the face of lagging press freedom and little government tolerance for criticism, how can the voices of average Singaporeans be heard? Where could Singaporeans go to talk about political issues and sensitive topics not being discussed in the mainstream media?
The Online Citizen (TOC) was launched in 2006 as an alternative news platform that reflects the views and opinions of ordinary Singaporeans. The site was founded by a handful of Singaporeans—Andrew Loh, Gerald Giam, Benjamin Cheah, and Choo Zheng Xi—who were already actively blogging and wanted a place to tell the stories about Singapore and Singaporeans that weren’t being told in the mainstream press.
The community of volunteer bloggers behind TOC work as advocacy journalists to share stories of the "real" Singapore. TOC tackles and covers a number of issues typically not covered in the mainstream press such as homelessness, the plight of migrant workers, gender issues, income inequality, and the death penalty. Stories frequently appear questioning government actions (http://theonlinecitizen.com/category/politics/truth-or-propoganda/).
THE TOOLS AND TACTICS
Internet penetration in Singapore is extremely high; according to the World Bank, there were 70 internet users per 100 citizens in 2008.
According to Alexa, Facebook is the most visited website in Singapore, with YouTube coming in third and Twitter tenth. Since Facebook is extremely popular, the TOC team has taken to developing an active Facebook presence to help drive traffic to the site.
A TOC administrator shares: “Facebook has been a very great tool to attract viewers to the main site. There are things we could do on Facebook, like irreverent stuff that would have been out of place on the main site. But they pique the curiosity of the average Facebooker, who may come to the FB page through a post his friend shared.”
Their Facebook page has more than 10,000 fans and they frequently post stories from their site and from other news sites and blogs, with each post generating comments from users. TOC also has a presence on Twitter and YouTube.
To build a broader a community of bloggers/citizen journalists, submissions of articles are open to anyone. Articles received are edited by the TOC team and then posted on the site. This encourages submissions from anyone on the street, whether they are professional journalists or bloggers or just concerned citizens with an opinion to voice.
THE STUMBLING BLOCKS
Fortunately, TOC has faced minimal intimidation and threats from the government and, by all indications, the government tolerates online discontent to the extent that it doesn’t touch on issues of race or religion.
As TOC Editor-in-Chief Andrew Loh said in a radio interview: “Even then we also put our articles on race and religion because we are trying to push to see how far we can discuss these issues. But by and large, yes, the government has left us alone. We have...never received a warning from the government, never received a phone call, e-mail, investigation, nothing.”
Challenges to press freedom obviously remain. When asked if TOC has seen any improvements in press freedom since the site first launched four years ago, they responded:
“If you're referring to the mainstream media, I'd say not so much improvement in press freedom, but there's a bit more fairness in reporting on stories that in past would have been more skewed in favor toward the incumbent. We've had journalists telling us that when we broke some stories, the editors had no choice but to allow them to report likewise. But let's not forget that the Newspaper and Printing presses Act still remains like the proverbial 'Sword of Damocles.' Only until that is removed can we truly talk about improvement in press freedom.”
There are also challenges inherent in being all-volunteer based, including trying to find a balance between working at TOC and having a day job, as well as operating with very limited funding. TOC has faced difficulties registering as a Limited Liability Partnership due to restrictive criteria and relies on donations and advertisements.
There is also the hurdle of growing the network of bloggers and citizen journalists contributing articles to the site while simultaneously trying to draw more Singaporeans to the site.
TOC recently celebrated its fourth anniversary. The site's readership continues to grow, receiving between 20,000 to 30,000 views a day.
Stories that have appeared on TOC have fostered dialog and spurred change. In an interview with Global Voices, Ravi Philemon, TOC’s joint chief editor, related an instance where information TOC has led to concrete changes:
"An example would be the issue of foreign or migrant workers in Singapore. After our one-week campaign on TOC in 2009, the Ministry of Manpower (MOM) took action, which included raiding various dormitory sites that house these workers in atrocious housing. Also, the MOM has also been more answerable after these instances were first highlighted by TOC and later by the mainstream media."
TOC recently organized the “Face to Face Forum” for opposition candidates. At the forum, opposition candidates shared their opinions and outlined their party platforms.
An administrator from TOC said that there are plans to continue helping candidates share their opinions as the 2011 general election approaches, sharing: “We intend to allow TOC to be a greater platform for the candidates—be they opposition or incumbent—to explain policies leading up to the elections. One of the things that the forum couldn't quite do, understandably, was for the parties to do just that. As to whether the format would be in the form of regular columns or more forums, we've yet to decide.”
The Online Citizen continues to fill a void and act as a pioneer for amplifying the voices of the average Singaporeans and pushing toward a freer society.blog comments powered by Disqus