In April, for the first time in 10 years, Singapore’s government acknowledged the need to relax controls over media. In an effort to promote the country as an international arts and culture hub, officials also launched a review of the country’s stringent censorship policies, which regulate licensing and all media content, including on Singapore-based Web sites. The Censorship Review Panel, comprised of 22 members, including artists, journalists, government officials, business leaders, and academics, met in May and is expected to publish a report on its findings in early 2003.
Yet reform is still far from becoming reality. The censorship code forbids any publications that “erode the core moral values of society [or] subvert the nation’s security or stability,” and journalists are still subject to expensive fines or lawsuits if they overstep government limits on reporting. In June, a Mandarin-language radio station was fined 15,000 Singapore dollars (US$8,000) for violating the Singapore Broadcasting Authority’s Radio Programme Standards and Censorship Code after a reporter injected into her reading of the news “unwarranted” personal remarks about a variety of topics, including the conflict in the Middle East, Chinese immigrants in Singapore, and an announcement by U.S. officials that they reserve the right to use nuclear weapons in an international conflict.
Following the implementation in 2001 of regulations requiring Web sites with political content to register with the government, officials continued to crack down on the Internet in 2002. In July, Muslim activist Zulfikar Mohamad Shariff left Singapore for Australia after the government began investigating him for criminal defamation because articles published on his Web site, Fateha.com, criticized government officials and Ho Ching, the newly appointed director of Temasek Holdings, a government-owned investment company. Ho is also daughter-in-law of elder statesman Lee Kuan Yew.
Despite such threats to online speech, citizens have become increasingly bold in using online forums, including one operated by the Straits Times daily, to critique government policies. Sintercom, an online news site that closed in 2001 after refusing to register with the government, has been revived by anonymous editors who have been able to evade government regulations by keeping their identities and locations secret.
Even international media giants are not immune to the government’s legal pressures. After officials accused the U.S.-based financial news service Bloomberg of defamation because of an article on Bloomberg’s Web site that described Ho Ching’s appointment to Temasek as nepotism, the company issued a statement saying that “these allegations are false and completely without foundation. We unreservedly apologize.” The company also agreed to pay damages to the government and removed the story from the Web site before the case even went to court.
In August, print journalists received another legal blow when the High Court ruled that reporters do not have the right to protect confidential sources in civil cases if the court decides the documents are “relevant” to the proceedings. The controversial ruling came from a libel case brought by a door manufacturer against the Singapore daily Business Times, which had reported about the company’s financial difficulties. The plaintiff requested that the court order the newspaper to turn over the reporter’s notes and article drafts, but the court ultimately did not request the journalist’s documents because they were judged irrelevant to the case.
Of the two major media companies in Singapore, one, Media Corp., is fully government-owned, while the other, Singapore Press Holdings, has close ties to the ruling People’s Action Party. In 2002, the government’s Economic Review Committee recommended raising the ceiling on foreign investment in the media–which had previously been capped at 5 percent–to 20 percent as part of an effort to develop and diversify the domestic news business.
High Court judge Choo Han Teck ruled that reporters do not have the right to protect confidential sources in civil cases if the court decides the documents requested are “relevant” to the proceedings. In a ruling published in the Law Academy Digest, Judge Choo said that journalists do not have the “privilege of exemption” if the court orders disclosure, according to Singaporean and international press reports.
The court issued the controversial ruling during a libel case brought by a door manufacturer against the Singapore daily Business Times, which had reported about the company’s financial difficulties. The plaintiff requested that the court order the newspaper to turn over the reporter’s notes and article drafts, but the court ultimately did not request the journalist’s documents because they were judged irrelevant to the case.