Saturday, July 08, 2006


The Straits Times today devotes several pages to the phenomenon of citizen journalism, and includes a big fat quote from yours truly. Not surprisingly, though, ST left out one additional point I made: that I do not consider STOMP to be citizen journalism. Here's what I wrote to the reporter:

"And to answer an unasked question, I don't consider STOMP to be citizen journalism, because it puts the public on tap, not on top. It merely introduces greater interactivity to traditional journalism. Citizen journalism in the proper sense does its own agenda-setting. Citizen journalists decide what questions need to be asked and what topics to pursue. They don't just answer questions decided by mainstream editors."

The Review package celebrates STOMP as if it is the cutting edge of citizen journalism in Singapore, and makes it seem as if those interviewed agree with this premiss. I hope the above quote clarifies that I don't. To me, it is not the source of facts or opinions that distinguishes citizen journalism from the mainstream - just because a story or picture comes from a reader does not make it a piece of citizen journalism. Instead, it boils down to who selects and decides what stories to pursue and publish. Editorial decision making is what separate journalism from gossip. STOMP, like the rest of ST, is edited by professional ST journalists, not ordinary citizens.

Citizen journalism has unrealised potential in Singapore. (See my earlier post below.) Most promising, I think, are the special interest areas or "beats" in which considerable expertise exists outside of the media. A taste of things to come is found in Mr Wang Says So, who uses his legal training to provide legal analysis that is often superior to ST's; Dawn Kua's blog on animal issues; and Chua Ai Lin's Singapore heritage mailing list. (Thanks to Sarah for pointing me to these. If you know of other "expert" Singaporean blogs in specialised areas, I would love to receive your recommendations.)


In my previous post, I wondered what the government's statement on mrbrown's Today column would mean for the national newspapers' attempts to borrow the blogsphere's appeal. The government seems to be saying that alternative is alternative and mainstream is mainstream, and never the twain shall meet. If so, I am increasingly of the view that the biggest losers this past week are the mainstream mass media. The online protestations notwithstanding, there is no evidence (yet) that the government's statement represents a crackdown on blogs per se. Instead, it is a crackdown on mainstream editors who are trying to increase their newspapers' appeal by co-opting celebrity bloggers.

Newspaper editors know that their pages must reflect at least some of the buzz that's going on online. If they don't, they risk losing some readers entirely - readers who feel quite at home online, and for whom the online experience is part of daily reality. If newspapers don't respond to this, they will seem like an alien landscape to such readers. Even if they continue to read The Straits Times, Today and other papers, they will read them as foreign newspapers: informative, entertaining and educational as The New Straits Times or the New York Times are informative, entertaining and educational - but not as "their" newspapers.

Society will also lose if the Singapore mediascape has a great wall between mainstream and alternative. We need bridges between the two. The alternative media fulfil the roles of self-expression and identity formation for individuals and groups; the mainstream media help people figure out their common interests and shared problems as a Public. Both types of communication are important, but shouldn't take place in complete isolation.

Therefore, newspapers should continue to give some space to the kind of communication that takes place online. But, after the government's statement, can they? I think it is possible, using certain journalistic and design conventions. The trick is to signal clearly to the reader (and the government) what kind of editing standards are being applied to an article. Newspapers always apply multiple standards. For example, the Straits Times applies a higher standard to its op-ed Review pages than to its Forum or YouthInk pages. It is clear to readers that a piece published in Forum or YouthInk won't necessarily have the same authority or level of argument as a piece selected for Review. When ST carries a piece in Review, it is implicitly saying, "Here's an article that we the national newspaper think is important, well-argued, and contributes to policy and intellectual debate." On the other hand, when ST runs a piece in YouthInk, readers know that it is saying, "Here's a contribution that's interesting because it shows what young people are thinking, even if wouldn't pass muster for our more serious, grown-up pages." Similarly, I think it should be acceptable for national newspapers to carry articles like the one by mrbrown, if editors signal clearly the standards that are being applied. This is pure speculation, but I think Today's mistake was to give mrbrown's column the same "look and feel" of its more elevated columns, thus apparently giving the editors' stamp of approval to mrbrown's arguments. In the government's eyes, this would "confuse" the public, when the national newspapers are depended on to provide clarity and not contribute to the alleged confusion. Would the government have tolerated mrbrown's column if it was labeled "A partisan blogger's view"? I think it is possible, but we shall never know.

Thursday, July 06, 2006


"I have been informed that TODAY has suspended my column," writes mrbrown. Thus, Today appears to have acted on the government's statement on opinion columns in mainstream media (see earlier posting). We don't know if there was any explicit instruction from the government to discontinue his column, but Today editors probably felt they could not read the government's letter any other way. The government said that "it is not the role of journalists or newspapers in Singapore to champion issues, or campaign for or against the Government", and implied that mrbrown is a "partisan player in politics", "exploiting his access to the mass media to undermine the Government's standing with the electorate". Indeed, the main intended audience of the government's response to mrbrown's column may have been the editors of Mediacorp Press and SPH, who have been trying to increase their publications' cool quotient by co-opting aspects of online culture, including celebrity bloggers.

The 1990s had the Catherine Lim Affair. Will Singaporeans be talking about the mrbrown affair in the years to come? It is too early to tell what it spells for Singapore media and politics in the long term. One thing, though, is clear: the government is drawing a distinct line between alternative niche media and mainstream mass media. Mrbrown's offence was that his views were "widely circulated in a regular column in a serious newspaper". Presumably, his blog will continue to be tolerated. Indeed, 10 years after the government introduced the class licence and registration rules for the internet, it has yet to block or ban a single political website. (At a conference recently, I put the question to messrs brown and Miyagi: by and large, has the government kept its promise to regulate the internet with a "light touch"? Their answer, at the time: yes.)

While this regulatory distinction between mainstream and alternative media seems clearcut, there remain some question marks over the government's position. First, experts on media regulation usually say that rules should be platform-neutral. Otherwise, especially in an age of digital convergence, you may end up with an inconsistent policy, with the same content being banned on one medium but not on another. But perhaps the distinction being drawn in this case is not a technological one between print and online, but is based on relative reach and influence (like the way cinemas, subscription TV and free-to-air TV are subject to different censorship rules).

Second, what does this mean for newspapers' attempts to move with the times and borrow from online culture, including the Straits Times' much-hyped STOMP? The online activities of registered newspaper companies are accorded a special status: for example, they are considered "news" and thereby exempt from the rules against online electioneering. But, when free-wheeling bloggers and online discussants are co-opted by the likes of STOMP, should they be treated with a light touch a la the rest of cyberspace, or to the "higher standard" of mainstream media since they are circulated with the mainstream media's stamp?

Third, it is one thing to demolish an individual article and declare that it has crossed the OB markers, but it's another thing altogether to decide that the writer is himself permanently out of bounds, and that even his future, unpenned views cannot be published. That is what the suspension of mrbrown's column amounts to. If Today's decision reflects official policy, then it strikes me as a policy of going after the man, not the ball, and is a retrograde step in Singapore's political development.

Tuesday, July 04, 2006


Popular Singapore blogger mr brown has been rapped by the information ministry for a piece he wrote in Today as part of his regular column. The government's letter, published in Today on 3 July, establishes that criticism within the mainstream press will be held to a less tolerant standard than what appears online, presumably because the latter is not considered as public to the same degree. The reply is also interesting because it is probably the most detailed statement in recent years about out-of-bounds markers for commentators. The basic principle, though, is similar to what was enunciated in the Catherine Lim affair: the government will decide if you are a partisan player in politics and treat you accordingly.

Here's the relevant section from the government's reply (signed off by K Bhavani, press secretary to the minister):

"mr brown's views on all these issues distort the truth. They are polemics dressed up as analysis, blaming the Government for all that he is unhappy with. He offers no alternatives or solutions. His piece is calculated to encourage cynicism and despondency, which can only make things worse, not better, for those he professes to sympathise with.

mr brown is entitled to his views. But opinions which are widely circulated in a regular column in a serious newspaper should meet higher standards. Instead of a diatribe mr brown should offer constructive criticism and alternatives. And he should come out from behind his pseudonym to defend his views openly.

It is not the role of journalists or newspapers in Singapore to champion issues, or campaign for or against the Government. If a columnist presents himself as a non-political observer, while exploiting his access to the mass media to undermine the Government's standing with the electorate, then he is no longer a constructive critic, but a partisan player in politics."