Journalism in the 154th
For a tiny country that wants to excel at almost everything, 154 is a pretty crappy place to be. It's the crappiest place Singapore has ever been in terms of Reporters Without Borders' (RSF) World Press Freedom Index – we were the second-largest drop in score in the Asia-Pacific region, after Brunei.
It's easy to feel skeptical of the index. Is the situation in Singapore really that bad? How can we be so much worse than Qatar, where censorship would have a journalist write "malt beverage" rather than "beer"?
Being a journalist in Singapore is in no way more dangerous than being one in Mexico (149), where journalists like Anabel Flores Salazar are kidnapped from their homes and murdered. It can't be more dangerous than Bangladesh (144), where bloggers are hacked to death in the streets for daring to publish their opinions. And it certainly isn't more dangerous than Pakistan (147), where the Taliban has a hit-list of supposedly liberal journalists and reporters get shot on their way to work.
But the Press Freedom Index isn't just a reflection of the violence, imprisonment and abuse that journalists around the world face. It's meant to be a reflection of institutions, of structural press freedom rather than threats to individuals.
Singapore's poor ranking on the index isn't pointing to the torture of journalists – there isn't any here, unless you count dealing with some PR/corp comms departments – but something one could say is far more insidious.
RSF's methodology measures seven different criteria, of which violence and abuse is just one. The other six are:
An index questionnaire focusing on these areas is sent out to media professionals, lawyers and sociologists. Questions include:
- Is investigative journalism developed enough to uncover matters of significance?
- How easy is it for authorities to force the firing of a public radio or TV journalist?
- Do officials favour certain media (access, interviews etc.) because of favourable editorial policy?
- Do journalists practise self-censorship for fear of the following consequences? [Civil lawsuits, attacks on reputation, threats to physical safety, etc.]
- Are accreditation procedures for foreign journalists applying to work on national territory fair and transparent?
Under legislation like the Newspaper and Printing Presses Act, the government is able to wield a vast amount of influence over mainstream 'traditional' media. It has a say in appointments of key figures within the press, and it has been a long time since the Singaporean mainstream press corps saw itself as a 'fourth estate' watchdog over the powerful. Investigative journalism is stymied by the lack of freedom of information legislation coupled with liberal use of the Official Secrets Act. It shouldn't be of surprise to anyone that we don't fare particularly well when it comes to areas like pluralism, media independence, self-censorship and transparency.
Day-to-day life as a journalist in Singapore does not feel like one is living in #154 of 180 countries, mostly because nothing particularly harrowing happens here, but also because so many of the barriers to press freedom have been normalised almost to the point of invisibility, and little is done about it by members of the press themselves. We complain, with lots of groaning and eye-rolling, about being stonewalled by government agencies but don't want to push for freedom of information and transparency. We all know of censorship and meddling in the mainstream media – even the prime minister's sister can't take it anymore, for goodness sake – but the media companies prefer to act as if everything is fine.
If even journalists fail to highlight press freedom issues in Singapore, why should anyone else give a damn?
Being a journalist in Singapore isn't about fearing imprisonment, kidnap, torture or assassination. In my experience, it isn't even about being threatened or ordered to drop stories. It's more about the whole environment: people being reluctant to go on record about things unless it echoes the establishment stance, not being able to get media accreditation, realising the government's sent press releases to the mainstream media before making it available to other media (thus kind of defeating the point of a press release), repeating sentences and words in your head a few more times than really necessary to make sure you didn't inadvertently say something that could end up as a lawsuit, seeing your non-Singaporean journalist colleagues hesitate over particular stories for fear of their work permits/permanent residency status, etc.
These conditions are neither inevitable nor immutable. Freeing the press is a crucial part of achieving a democratic society. It cannot be separated from the rest of civil society activity. Journalists, too, need to advocate for their profession and their freedom.