"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.