Attacks on the Press 2001: Singapore

In the run-up to November’s general elections, entrenched government control of the media and new regulations governing the Internet and the foreign press virtually silenced public dissent. The ruling People’s Action Party’s (PAP) overwhelming dominance in the media sector helped guarantee the party’s supremacy: It won more than 75 percent of the vote, its biggest victory since 1980.

Singapore Press Holdings (SPH), a company closely linked to the PAP, owns all but one of the country’s newspapers. In 2000, SPH secured licenses to operate television and radio stations, which were launched in May 2001. The only alternative to SPH is the government-owned Media Corp, which publishes a free daily newspaper, runs several television channels, and operates 12 of the country’s 18 FM radio stations.

The government also tightened control over the foreign media, one of the country’s only sources of independent coverage. In April, Parliament passed a bill granting the government broad power to prevent foreign broadcasters from “engaging in domestic politics.”

Kevin Liew, youth leader of the opposition Singapore Democratic Party, told the International Herald Tribune that, “With the local media in the hands of the ruling party and the continued restrictions on the foreign media, the Internet is the only other avenue for the opposition to conduct its campaign activities.”

But authorities promulgated new regulations in 2001 limiting online speech as well. In April, the government ordered nonprofit organizations that promote press freedom and other political reforms to register as political organizations, thus prohibiting them from receiving foreign funding. These regulations affected free expression advocacy groups, such as Think Centre, Open Singapore Center, and Sintercom.

Additional rules banned non-party-affiliated political Web sites from publishing campaign materials or running election advertisements. In effect, only PAP or PAP-affiliated content was officially allowed online during the campaign. Soon after the regulations were announced, Sintercom closed, and Think Centre shut its online Speakers Corner forum in protest.

Free-lancer Robert Ho was the first person charged for violating the new regulations. On November 16, Ho was arrested after posting an article on the Singaporeans for Democracy Web site that criticized four PAP leaders for violating election laws in 1997. Ho was forced to undergo a psychiatric evaluation. If convicted, he faces three years in jail.

In 2000, the government opened Speakers Corner, a Hyde Park Corner-style experiment in free expression. But by 2001, the experiment had clearly failed. Participants are required to register before speaking, the government has banned certain topics, and security officials monitor what is said. In September, local civil society activists commemorated Speakers Corner’s first year in a ceremony designed to highlight the initiative’s failings. At the ceremony, activist James Gomez said, “The only thing which has grown at Speaker’s Corner is the grass.”

April 19

Foreign broadcast media

The Singaporean Parliament passed a bill designed to curb foreign broadcast coverage of local issues. The new law gives the government broad power to restrict or suspend broadcasters for “engaging in domestic politics.”

With Singapore’s local media overwhelmingly controlled by the ruling People’s Action Party, foreign media have been a crucial source of independent news in the country. The legislation, an amendment to the Singapore Broadcasting Authority Act, would affect the operations of the BBC, CNN, CNBC, Bloomberg, and the Hong Kong-based Chinese Television Network.

The legislation “makes it clear to foreign broadcasters that whilst they can sell their services to Singaporeans, they should not interfere with our domestic politics,” said Information Minister Lee Yock Suan, according to Agence France-Presse. “Foreign broadcasters are outsiders and not participants on our political scene.”

Foreign print media are already subject to similar legislation.

CPJ protested the legislation in a statement issued on April 19.

November 16

Robert Ho, free-lancer

Ho, a free-lance journalist, was arrested after posting an online essay that accused government officials of breaking the law during the 1997 elections.

After being charged with posting online content that was “likely to lead to a breach of peace,” Ho was forced to undergo a psychiatric evaluation. On November 30, he posted bail of Singapore $5,000 (US$2,778).

Ho is the first person to be charged under legislation regulating Internet content that was passed in the run-up to the November 3 general elections. The regulations stipulate that Web sites not administered by a political party may not publish political material during the election. On October 19, Ho’s essay was posted on Singaporeans for Democracy, a nongovernmental, pro-democracy Web site.

Ho’s essay accused Prime Minister Goh Chok Tong and other People’s Action Party officials of violating the law by entering polling stations without a permit on election day in 1997. He called on all Singaporeans to protest by breaking the same law during the upcoming election.

If convicted, Ho could be sentenced to three years in prison. No trial date had been set by year’s end.