Is there Space for Alternative Media in Singapore?


Where do you get your news from?

If you’re a well-informed adult: most likely, you turn to a trusted news source, like a national newspaper or from national media outlets. Basically, we’re clear that we should be getting our information from official sources, and not chain messages forwarded from your mother’s friend’s sister’s neighbour’s twice-divorced son-in-law.

But are these news outlets really trustworthy, or are we supposed to take their word for it? Is there information that is being hidden or suppressed, and isn’t being reported?

Ranking low on the Press Freedom Index

The RSF (Reporters Without Borders) seems to think so. In 2020, Singapore ranked 158 on a list of 180 on the Press Freedom Index – seven spaces down from the previous year. RSF classified Singapore’s press situation as “very bad”, for reasons such as being “quick to sue critical journalists, or apply pressure to make them unemployable, or even force them to leave the country”.

Singapore also has “OB markers” or “out-of-bounds markers”, a term coined by the former Minister for Information and the Arts, George Yeo, that describes topics that are deemed off limits to be reported on – i.e., censorship imposed by the government to not disrupt the social fabric of the nation – and it is the responsibility of media practitioners and journalists to be sensitive to such markers. Failure to do so would result in a backfiring of the organisation, regardless of intention.

Alternative media therefore presents alternative voice

This is where alternative online news outlets come into play. These outlets provide a different point of view, and usually with first-person commentary/opinion. Some also do well in shedding light on social issues and promoting change for the better of Singaporeans.

However, they are often seen as anti-government, and pro-opposition in Singapore’s long-term single political party reign of its 55 years of independence. And, this has made them targets of lawsuits – defamation, publishing against public interest and national harmony, and libel.

An argument can be made that this is just the government’s way of protecting Singaporeans from falsehoods. Which is why the establishment of the Protection from Online Falsehoods and Manipulation Act (POFMA) was necessary.

Fake News Law to fight fake news

POFMA, also known as the Fake News Law, is a statute of the Parliament of Singapore that enables authorities to tackle the spread of fake news or fake information.

POFMA comes at a time when news spreads quickly. With the advent of WhatsApp and the ‘share’ button on Facebook, information can reach thousands easily with just a click of a button. The psychology behind believing and sharing fake new also matters.

Dr Christopher Dwyer, in an article for Psychology Today, said that fake news is often believable because we seek a confirmation bias that confirms our existing beliefs. Information is further confirmed when it comes from a trusted source or someone you personally know, so hearing from your mother’s friend’s sister’s neighbour’s twice-divorced son-in-law who knows someone working in the Prime Minister’s Office, that stockpiling will be necessary during a lockdown comes across as believable.

POFMA in a time of a global pandemic

But the COVID-19 pandemic has proven why POFMA is necessary. In May this year, ChannelNewsAsia reported that six out of 10 people had received fake news about the coronavirus through social media platforms, and most prevalently, from messaging platforms like WhatsApp, Telegram, and Facebook Messenger.

Earlier that month, the Ministry of Communications and Information had already debunked 40 instances of fake news on COVID-19. One notable case was when POFMA was invoked against the Singapore States Times Facebook page, which wrongfully confirmed the number of cases in Singapore that day. The act was also invoked against the States Times Review that reported that the government and the Ministry of Health were covering up information about confirmed case numbers.

Used to dispel confusion and calm anxieties

Minister for Communications and Information, S. Iswaran, said in Parliament that POFMA in COVID-19 served to “swiftly put out the facts to dispel confusion and calm anxieties fomented by such falsehoods.”

He also said that it was Singaporeans’ duty to ensure information is truthful before it is spread. “It is of utmost importance, especially at a time of crisis like this, that each and every one of us does the right thing by checking that the messages we receive come from reliable sources, and make the effort to verify a claim or piece of information before sharing.”

But POFMA anywhere else still drives criticism

While it has proven its usefulness in crises, POFMA still receives criticism, as a form of government censorship on media. RSF criticised POFMA, calling it an “Orwellian Ministry of Truth”, as the government “[prefers] to impose its own vision of the ‘facts’”.

In 2019, Facebook and an industry group representing Internet and technology giants expressed concerns over the enactment of POFMA. Facebook said in a statement that it was concerned with aspects of the law that grant “broad powers to the Singapore executive branch to compel us to remove content they deem to be false and proactively push a government notification to users”.

The issue was raised after the Infocomm Media Development Authority (IMDA) requested for a Facebook post (before POFMA was enacted), which made allegations against Prime Minister Lee Hsien Loong and the government’s relations with the 1Malaysia Development Berhad (1MDB) scandal, to be taken down.

Foreign groups chime in

Facebook said that it did not have a policy that prohibits alleged fake news, “apart from in situations where this content has the potential to contribute to imminent violence or physical harm”.

The Asia Internet Coalition also said in a statement that “[they] are also concerned that [POFMA] gives the Singapore government full discretion over what is considered true or false”.

“As the most far-reaching legislation of its kind to date, this level of overreach poses significant risks to freedom of expression and speech, and could have severe ramifications both in Singapore and around the world.”

POFMA and alternative media can co-exist

Even with things like POFMA, there is still a place for alternative media in Singapore. “[Alternative news media] have to resonate with the target audience’s needs, as well as evolve with people’s rapidly changing information habits,” said Dr Carol Soon, a senior research fellow at the Institute of Policy Studies (IPS).

She also said that as media incumbents begin to produce and publish more commentaries that provide deeper insights into issues that matter to the public, alternative news sites must find and carve their own niche.

It is up to journalists to provide facts

The Select Committee on Deliberate Online Falsehoods says this is only possible if alternative news sites are held to the same professional journalistic standards as mainstream media to ensure “fairness, accuracy, and integrity in reporting”.

The integrity of journalists was the central theme behind Warren Fernandez’s remarks at the Real News Matters journalism forum for World News Day this year. Fernandez commented that with misinformation on the rise, journalists play a crucial role in providing facts to support reasoned debate. He also went on to say that fact-checking and ensuring a balanced, objective, and unvarnished account of events is important work for professional newsrooms.

“The irony is this: While the world is more connected today and more people have much more information available at their fingertips, societies are not necessarily better informed or equipped to make the difficult choices we need to if we are going to address the many challenges we face,” said the editor-in-chief for The Straits Times.

Up to us to pick the right media to consume

Ultimately, healthy discussions on issues and policies cannot happen in the absence of credible and reliable information, Fernandez emphasised. Without it, discussions become dominated by “those with the loudest, most nasty or persistent, or often, the best financed voice”.


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