Singapore minister spells out restrictions on media during elections
- New media, same rules
In an e-mail interview with Sue-ann Chia, Minister for Information, Communications and the Arts Lee Boon Yang gives an insight into the thinking
April 15, 2006
The Straits Times
One argument the Government has made is that politics is a serious business and should not descend into entertainment. How so?
We encourage the free flow of information and exchange of views within our political system. However, for political debates and discourse to be constructive and taken seriously, people have to take responsibility for what they say and should not remain anonymous. Facts must be ascertainable and arguments examined.
Voters can then consider the issues calmly and rationally with a view to the impact on their future, and not get carried away by emotions in the heat of the moment. This is the basis on which we run elections and politics in Singapore, and this is how we have crafted our rules.
For example, there is full freedom to write or publish anything you like and to voice your beliefs and convictions at election rallies, subject to defamation, sedition and other laws of the land. But political campaigning should not be turned into info-tainment, where the line between fact and fiction gets blurred, and people get worked up emotionally without understanding the substantive issues. This is why we do not allow music and entertainment at election rallies, unlike the practice in other countries.
For the same reason, we have not allowed party political films and videos. The impact of watching a video is very different from reading something in cold print. Political videos may be presented as objective documentaries, but are in fact slanted propaganda to draw attention and score political points.
For example, the film Fahrenheit 9/11 was released as a documentary but its selective use of images and out-of-context quotations were designed to shock the audience and make President Bush look bad. Such videos cannot be easily countered with rational written arguments. They evoke visceral emotions and are not conducive to a calm and dispassionate treatment of politics.
Why is streaming of explicit political content through podcasts or videocasts not allowed but posting of party manifesto and texts of rally speeches allowed for political parties? What is the worry?
The Internet is a new medium, but the key issues are the same, and so we apply the same principles to address them. This is why we allow texts, party manifestos, candidates' write-ups and photos to be posted on the Internet in the same way that they are allowed in the print media.
Podcasts and videocasts, on the other hand, have a greater impact because of the nature of the medium. They have the greater power to influence. Hence, we do not allow podcasts and videocasts for election advertising, just as we do not allow party political films and videos.
The Internet has its own unique characteristics which require special attention. The Internet is ubiquitous, fast and anonymous. Once a false story or rumour is started on the Internet, it is almost impossible to put it right. Despite its usefulness, the Internet is chaotic and disorganised, with many half-truths and untruths masquerading as facts.
This is not theoretical; it has already occurred. Shortly after we announced Zaqy Mohamad in the line-up of new PAP candidates, there were netters who said that he was a nephew of Speaker of Parliament Abdullah Tarmugi, and this spread quickly on the Internet.
In fact, this is completely untrue, but how do we now rebut it on the Internet, and get all the blogs, bulletin boards and chatrooms to put out corrections to set this right? In this case, it is not an important issue, but if it involves emotive issues of race, language or religion, then it can easily destabilise our society. So we must be very careful and set rules so that individuals take responsibility for their actions.
To help bring some order to this chaotic environment, we have made it a requirement for political parties and individuals who use websites to propagate or promote political issues to register with the Media Development Authority (MDA). This promotes accountability and also ensures personal responsibility for comments made on the Internet.
Other countries are also grappling with similar issues. In the last US presidential elections, for example, there were vitriolic Internet campaigns against the two candidates, John Kerry and George Bush. One group tried to discredit Kerry's war record, while another accused Bush of dodging the Vietnam War draft. But those who propagated the personal attacks through their websites were never asked to account for what they said.
By registering political sites, we can avoid a similar situation from happening in Singapore. In this way, we uphold the seriousness and integrity of our electoral process.
Can we really have effective controls over the Internet?
I agree that the controls are not water-tight. The virtual nature of the Internet and its global scale make regulation difficult. But rules do have some effect. They set a certain standard and help maintain order and accountability in the way political issues are discussed over the Internet. There will always be grey areas but these rules will help define unacceptable practices.
Will there be new laws to keep up with changing technologies? What would these changes be?
Our position is dynamic as technology is advancing rapidly. We now have broadband and 3G, and people are connected everywhere they go. As the situation evolves, we will have to update our position accordingly. We are constantly reviewing our rules, and by the next election, I am sure we will have them updated to deal with a different environment.
But we will move cautiously, and learn from the experience of other countries. As we feel our way forward, we will continue to take steps to enhance the quality of political debate and preserve the choice that Singaporeans have when it comes to elections.
The opposition parties have slammed the latest announcement disallowing podcasting and videocasting. They said that it is meant to limit the audience for their rallies and hence hamstring their chances of reaching out to more voters. What's your response?
In fact, the restrictions on political films and videos pose more disadvantages for the PAP than for the opposition. If the PAP were to make a political video, it has the resources to do a first-class production. But we decided against this, as it could demean the spirit of political debate and undermine the longer-term interest of Singapore.
I am also surprised that the opposition parties feel that their plans have been disrupted. This is not a ban that came out of the blue. All these parties had to do was to check the positive list to see what is allowed and what is not allowed. The regulations have been available since the last General Election in 2001. The opposition parties are free to approach MDA or Mica for clarification, but have not done so.
(Note: The 'positive list' states what types of election advertising are allowed for political parties, candidates and election agents.)
What if the blogger is anonymous or hosts his blog overseas? How do you get the blogger to register? How will registration be enforced given the proliferation of blogs? Who will monitor or police the blogs?
Underlying some of these questions is the issue of what happens when someone tries to influence the political process by attempting to host websites anonymously or from overseas locations. This is a possibility that cannot be dismissed. MDA has oversight on these matters.
Where necessary, it will work in tandem with Mica and other relevant agencies. But we have always adopted a light touch for the Internet. So I will not lose much sleep over these scenarios. Internet users will just have to be more careful about putting their faith in the content of overseas websites. Singaporeans must also exercise judgment and avoid being taken in by those with an axe to grind or who are out to promote a hidden agenda.
Can political parties mass e-mail/SMS to people? Are they, in these mass e-mails/SMS, allowed to advertise themselves and put out their party manifesto or send out their rally speeches? Can political parties and individuals send mass e-mail/SMS with pictures or videos of election rallies?
Political parties are allowed to send e-mails during the election period. This is on the positive list, but subject to certain restrictions. For example, they should clearly provide information that would enable a recipient to unsubscribe from the party's mailing list. In addition, parties are not allowed to solicit for donations through e-mail or to request the recipient to forward the e-mail to others.
As for individual SMSes and e-mails, we consider these as private communication and they will remain the private domain of individuals. I agree that some people may hide behind this facade of private communication and use e-mails, or a chain-mail system to conduct election advertising. But they should bear in mind that other laws also apply to e-mail communication. These include libel. One should not hastily dash off e-mails in the heat of the moment and live to regret a rash act later. So think first, and then write knowing fully the consequences of such comments.
Can foreign based newspapers, especially online news sites, put up podcasts/videocasts of an explicit political nature on their websites? Can local newspapers and other mainstream media put up podcasts/vodcasts of election rallies?
The Parliamentary Elections Act makes specific exemptions which allow the publication of any news relating to an election in a newspaper in any medium or in a radio or television broadcast. If they choose to, they will be allowed to carry such materials in the form of videocasts and audiocasts on their websites.
Foreign news organisations will, of course, be allowed to report on the election. But there is a big difference between reporting on local affairs and interfering in them. We do not permit foreign news organisations operating in Singapore to participate or interfere in domestic politics. Singapore politics is for Singaporeans only. Should we find that a foreign newspaper or broadcaster has been inaccurate in its reporting or presented unfounded reports, we expect to be accorded the right of reply. I think this is a fair and reasonable thing to ask for. We are simply asking for journalistic integrity.
If a newspaper, for example, has published an unjustified comment, the very least that it should do is to let us present our side of the story and facts for their readers to be the judge.
If they are not prepared to give us this right of reply, then the Newspaper Printing and Publishing Act and the Broadcasting Act set out the sanctions which we can impose on the foreign media including restrictions to their circulation.
We welcome foreign media to Singapore. I hope that they understand our position on this matter and we can continue our amicable and mutually beneficial relationship.
Media won't set Singapore agenda, says Lee Kuan Yew
SINGAPORE (AFP) - Singapore's founding father Lee Kuan Yew, who has successfully sued foreign publications for libel, has warned he will not allow the media to set the agenda for the city-state.
Former Singapore prime minister Lee Kuan Yew. "The media is not setting the agenda for Singapore," Lee said. AP
"The media is not setting the agenda for Singapore," Lee said in a forum with young Singaporeans televised late Wednesday.
"Why am I so strong against the media? Because they try to put us down, they twisted everything I said. (They said) that I was a communist when they knew I wasn't," he said.
Lee also served a strong warning against the foreign media, some of which have their regional offices in Singapore. "I will not allow the foreign media to set the agenda. So every misrepresentation, we have a reply," he said.
Lee, 82, was asked at the forum about the lack of a "level playing field" for the political opposition in general elections widely expected to be held soon, compared with all the advantages of the ruling People's Action Party.
He recalled that when he was campaigning for public office in 1959, there was also no level playing field as most of the newspapers at that time were against him, and yet he won.
He recalled that he told the media at that time that if he won, he would show them how to behave themselves.
Singapore officials have been criticised for using financially draining defamation suits to silence opposition politicians, the media and others. In early 2006, the British news magazine The Economist apologised to Lee for allegations contained in an obituary on the city-state's former president Devan Nair.
The weekly also agreed to pay Lee an unspecified amount in damages as well as other costs.
In 2004, The Economist also issued a public apology and paid damages to Lee and his son, current Prime Minister Lee Hsien Loong, for an article implying nepotism behind the appointment of the premier's wife, Ho Ching, as executive director of the state-linked investment company Temasek Holdings.
The Asian financial website FinanceAsia.com and US-based financial news agency Bloomberg had also apologised to the Lee family on articles related to Ho Ching's appointment, which the government says was based on merit.
- Lee Kuan Yew, Before Singapore's independence, Malaysian Parliamentary Debates, Dec 18, 1964
"Political reform need not go hand in hand with economic liberalisation. I do not believe that if you are libertarian, full of diverse opinions, full of competing ideas in the market place, full of sound and fury, therefore you will succeed."
- Minister Mentor Lee Kuan Yew, Straits Times, Aug 17, 2004"Repression, Sir is a habit that grows. I am told it is like making love-it is always easier the second time! The first time there may be pangs of conscience, a sense of guilt. But once embarked on this course with constant repetition you get more and more brazen in the attack. All you have to do is to dissolve organizations and societies and banish and detain the key political workers in these societies. Then miraculously everything is tranquil on the surface. Then an intimidated press and the government-controlled radio together can regularly sing your praises, and slowly and steadily the people are made to forget the evil things that have already been done, or if these things are referred to again they're conveniently distorted and distorted with impunity, because there will be no opposition to contradict."
- Lee Kuan Yew as an opposition PAP member speaking to David Marshall, Singapore Legislative Assembly, Debates, 4 October, 1956