Attacks on the Press 2003: Singapore

Singapore continued to promote its bid to become a “global media city ” in 2003 but failed to take any concrete steps toward loosening stringent controls over free speech and the press.

As part of a campaign to liven up its stuffy international image, the government liberalized a number of its draconian social controls: Bungee jumping is now permitted, for example, and citizens will soon be allowed to buy chewing gum, but only for therapeutic purposes from a pharmacy. “If we want our people to make more decisions for themselves, and if we are to encourage a derring-do society, we must allow some risk-taking and a little excitement,” Prime Minister Goh Chok Tong said in announcing the bungee-jumping initiative. However, risk-taking by the nation’s journalists was still frowned upon. Strict censorship guidelines were upheld in 2003, and the ruling People’s Action Party (PAP) continued to exert significant legal, financial, and political control over all major media outlets.

Relations with the United States warmed considerably in 2003, with Singapore showing enthusiastic support for the Bush administration’s military action in Iraq, and the two nations signed a historic free trade agreement. In October, Bush visited Singapore, making him only the second U.S. president to do so. International standards of freedom of expression were not high on the bilateral agenda, and Bush overlooked Singapore’s repressive practices in favor of securing the city-state’s cooperation on antiterrorism efforts.

The Censorship Review Committee (CRC), launched in 2002 to restructure the national censorship policies that regulate licensing and media content, presented its findings to the public in July. The CRC report, which focused predominately on arts and entertainment media, claimed that 70 percent of the public expressed satisfaction with the existing censorship guidelines and, therefore, recommended very few substantive changes. The report recommended that the government uphold existing bans on “content that undermines public order and the nation’s security, denigrates race and religion or erodes moral values.” The government adopted almost all of the committee’s recommendations.

Singapore Press Holdings (SPH), which has close ties to the PAP, owns most of the print press in Singapore, while the government-owned Media Corp. dominates the broadcast media. In this tightly circumscribed press environment, the Internet has provided Singaporeans with a rare alternative voice, although tough government controls have limited online content.

Singapore has one of the highest Internet penetration rates in the world, with almost 60 percent of citizens online. Yet regulations mandate that all sites with political content register with the Singapore Broadcasting Authority, and Internet service providers are required to filter content from pornography sites or unsanctioned newsgroups.

New regulations passed in November give security agencies the power to monitor the Internet and pre-emptively crack down on hackers suspected of “cyberterrorism.” Free speech advocates raised concerns that the new laws violate Internet users’ right to privacy and could be abused by the government to further stifle online speech.

A few savvy Internet users have skirted the content controls by anonymously creating newsgroups from undisclosed locations, which are difficult for censors to trace. Primarily through e-mail, these groups–including Singapore Review, New Sintercom, and The Void Deck–distribute a wide variety of content focusing on local social and political issues that are banned from the traditional media. Although most have been able to escape direct political interference, hackers have hit some newsgroups. In October, after the Singapore Review newsgroup was mentioned in a Straits Times article, a hacker accessed the site and bombarded subscribers with mass e-mails. Editors do not know who is responsible, though the Singapore Review editor told CPJ that such computer attacks “are not isolated, sporadic, random incidents. The attacks all focus on ‘alternative media groups’ like ours who struggle to maintain existence outside of the stable of SPH-owned print journals.”

Officials continued to use the threat of hefty fines and libel lawsuits to silence their critics. WKRZ radio was fined 15,000 Singapore dollars (US$8,670) after the government deemed the station’s morning show “obscene and in bad taste.” When asked about the government’s penchant for using libel suits against its opponents, Prime Minister Goh replied, “It is a pattern because there is a pattern among the opposition leaders to be accusing us of wrongdoing.”