Sunday, April 30, 2006

IS THE GOVERNMENT EASING UP ON OLD MEDIA?

The appetite for new media is partly a function of how well traditional media fulfill people’s needs. So, what can be said about the performance of the mainstream mass media in the Singapore elections?

I have heard and read many complaints, mostly to do with inadequate or skewed coverage of the opposition and overly flattering coverage of the PAP. Nothing new here. Or is there? My own impressionistic assessment is that there has been a subtle but significant easing up on the media, allowing journalists more room than in previous elections to do their job with some professionalism. Why do I say this? Here are some observations.

First, compared especially with GE 1988, the coverage has reflected more honestly the level of interest in the polls and in particular contests. In 1988-89, I did my undergraduate thesis on government-press relations, focusing on press coverage of that GE. The most remarkable feature of it was that the all the local media, clearly under instructions from the government, treated the polls as a non-issue, devoting just a few pages daily to the campaign. Eunos GRC, being contested by Francis Seow and the Workers’ Party, was the battle to watch, but coverage was minimal. Not quite a news blackout, but close to it. Eighteen years later, there is no evidence of such media (mis)management. The only complaint I’ve heard about the volume of election coverage is that there’s too much (“why go on and on about the elections when the outcome is predictable?”) which is a good problem to have compared with 1988. Furthermore, the hot seats, notably Aljunied GRC, have been explicitly recognised and covered as such, very different from Eunos 1988. If the PAP is concerned that all the talk of hot seats will over-excite the electorate, it is not showing it – it has refrained from fixing the coverage as crudely as it did in 1988.

Second, there is less use of the news media as a campaign vehicle to run down the Opposition. Of course, in any election, when a party chooses to make its opponents’ character and ability an election issue, the media will report it because it’s news. If such attacks are the most interesting (even if not necessarily the most important) developments of the day, they will receive the most coverage. (Therefore, there’s nothing particularly exceptional about, say, the space or prominence given to the James Gomez controversy. The ruling party’s top leaders chose to make it a major issue, and it is worth reporting as such. Readers can then decide whether to accept the PAP’s conclusions, or Mr Low Thia Khiang’s that the PAP is making a mountain out of a molehill. It is customary for newspaper editors everywhere to refrain from pre-judging.) Compared with past GEs, the big difference this time is that the ST has stopped there. In the past, it would have “added value”, to put it euphemistically: with columns and graphics to ram home, in a crudely caricatured way, the “lessons” that the PAP wanted the electorate to draw. For example, the ST of old might have accompanied the James Gomez news story with a half-page graphic on opposition deceptions and dishonesty by opposition candidates over the years. Fortunately, most of us have forgotten the amplificatory journalism that used to accompany past GEs.

Another story that caught my eye for personal reasons was the Insight feature on Potong Pasir and Hougang some weeks ago. In the run-up to the 1991 GE, when I was a reporter at ST, I was assigned to write a similar Insight feature on life in what was then the only opposition-held town council, Potong Pasir. The piece was spiked, one of only a couple of articles in my 10 years at the ST to have been killed by editors after completion. The article that came out this year was not very different in substance or in its bottom line. It has taken 15 years, but I guess that is the time scale over which change happens in Singapore.

Why might this change be happening?

First, the government probably appreciates that it cannot afford to intervene so much in the press that the press loses all credibility. It would have learnt from events across the Causeway, where the crudely propagandistic mainstream press lost up to one-third of its audience during the Reformasi period. Malaysians rejected the government-controlled media in favour of alternative media, mainly less-regulated, more critical sources on the internet. Thus, while the Singapore government maintains that it has the authority to set the agenda for the press, it also knows that it has to be quite selective and self-restrained in exercising its powers.

Second, the government is probably more self-confident than before. It knows that the mathematical result is secure. It can therefore focus on the quality of its victory. It may have learnt from recent elections, when its victories were tainted by the perception that it did not fight fair. (Note, for example, the Roundtable’s critical assessment of the PAP victory in GE 1997, by Simon Tay and Zulkifli Baharudin, soon after the polls.) I suspect PM Lee Hsien Loong is keen to minimise allegations of unfairness. Hence, perhaps, the stability in the electoral boundaries, and Temasek Polytechnic’s timely change of rules allowing WP chairman Sylvia Lim to keep her job. If this analysis is correct, it would make sense for the PAP not to open itself to the criticism that, under its management, the press is hopelessly one-sided.

Of course, there continues to be unhappiness about media coverage. The most commonly heard complaint has to do with the relative space given to the parties. If you think about it, though, this is really a complaint about the PAP’s near-monopoly of power rather than media coverage. Mainstream journalism takes the world as it is, not as what journalists think it ought to be. In the world as it is, the PAP is the dominant party, the party whose people and policies will have the greatest impact on the lives of Singaporeans into the foreseeable future. As such, it is the PAP that is the most “newsworthy”. When comparing with the press in liberal democracies, the coverage of, say, the opposition Democrats in the US or the opposition Tories in Britain is hardly the right benchmark. These are parties that have already and will be again parties of government. They are rightly given substantial space in election coverage in those countries. To compare apples and apples, we might want to look at coverage of Ralph Nader’s Green Party in the US or the Liberal Democrats in Britain. These secondary players are not given equal coverage by the American or British media, because, in the world as it is, they are not likely to challenge seriously the dominance of the major parties. Singapore opposition parties’ realistic prospects are probably somewhere between the Greens and the LibDems. It would not be unprofessional for editors to treat them accordingly in their coverage.

This of course raises the question of whether professional mainstream journalism’s news values, and even their holy grail of objectivity – taking the world as it is – are necessarily good things. Some would argue that there’s a need for journalists to take a stand for democracy, and even discriminate positively in favour of pro-democratic and progressive causes. This is not, however, a position that most professional journalists worldwide are comfortable with. This more activist, cause-driven approach is therefore left to radical alternative media operating on the margins. Thus, in the US, Ralph Nader relies mostly on alternative media, and not the mainstream press. In Singapore, similarly, the opposition will continue to need alternative media, even if the government eased up on political control of the mainstream press. Mainstream journalism is organically and structurally linked to the status quo, even in free societies.

Saturday, April 29, 2006

BLOGGING AWAY

Most blog fans will know Technorati as a popular search engine that looks for blogs on your chosen topic. Technorati is a global resource, but Singaporeans are among its biggest users. As a result, the term "Singapore election" is #4 on the Technorati list of the world's most popular searches right now ("American Idol" is #1). The term "Singapore" is #15.

What will the blog-hungry find? At least two blogs are already reporting and commenting on the hustings, undeterred by the rules on online electioneering that have kicked in:

  • SINGAPORE ELECTION
  • Firmly opposition-leaning. Includes streaming video from the Workers Party's debut rally at Aljunied.

  • SG ELECTION 06
  • Includes more personal and whimsical reports from the rallies.

    Others that may cover the elections but are not yet active:

  • SINGAPORE POLITICS
  • Run by “Thrasymachus” self-described as a “True-Blue Singaporean”

  • SINGAPORE ELECTIONS

  • SG RALLY
  • Aggregates independent video and audio coverage “without commentary”.

    As for political party sites, SDP's was asked to take down its video content, which the Election Department said violated elecion rules. The SDP has complied.

    Thursday, April 27, 2006

    LESSONS FROM AN OLD MEDIA ENCOUNTER

    When government ministers appear in televised forums before the elections, it’s a reminder of one of the advantages that the incumbents have: as established newsmakers, they can command a hugely disproportionate share of news coverage. However, Minister Mentor Lee Kuan Yew’s recent dialogue with a group of young Singaporeans also showed that such opportunities can backfire if not managed properly.

    The dust has not yet fully settled, but it is already clear that the net effect of the programme has been negative for the PAP. That is not to say that most viewers believe Mr Lee “lost” the combative encounter. Rather, it’s simply to point out that, even if his critical interlocutors were speaking for a minority, the PAP would be better off today had the dialogue never taken place. The PAP's immediate battle is not for the majority, whose support is quite secure in the short term. It is courting the marginal voter: the one in 10 that makes the difference between a 60+ percentage vote share and a 70+ share. It is also that one in 10 swing voter who will decide, for example, whether Potong Pasir falls to the PAP, and the fate of other closely-fought seats. So, the correct tactical question to ask of the TV forum is, how did it affect the marginal voter. I don't think even MM's biggest fans would say that the programme helped win over that marginal voter. It is probably fair to say that the show pushed that marginal voter further away.

    Some may argue that it has been an educational experience, illustrating a generational/cultural divide in society. However, we did not need the dialogue to tell us that. Singapore has all sorts of divisions, and it is arguable whether highlighting these divisions and making them salient is healthy for society at any time; and during in election period it certainly doesn’t help a ruling party that advertises itself as the national party of unity.

    For the PAP, the irony is that the forum was probably unnecessary in the first place. It appeared to be a response to a perception of unhappiness or alienation among young voters. Sure, there are pockets of young people with critical views. However, Prime Minister Lee Hsien Loong has done an astonishingly good job in appealing to the young since he came to office in 2004. He has hardly put a foot wrong, and indeed his speeches have succeeded in inspiring many. Instead of leaving well enough alone, the PAP felt the need to win every last argument and convert every last man (and, if unsuccessful, scolding him), and in the process losing some of the political capital that has been painstakingly accumulated.

    Even if a dialogue was deemed necessary, it is arguable whether the minister mentor was the right person to field for such a task. The prime minister has shown himself a master of the dialogue format, has more recent practice in dealing with the young, and would probably have been far more effective at wooing the youthful marginal voter. PAP strategists could also have done a post-mortem of the series of TV dialogues that the newer ministers had with students a year or two ago. They would have probably found that ministers Khaw Boon Wan and Lim Swee Say, for example, are perfectly capable of connecting with young Singaporeans even as they make no apologies for the PAP’s hardball policies. Instead, not only has the PAP as a whole lost points, but, in addition, the stature of its most iconic leader has been compromised – all in all, an unnecessarily expenditure of political capital in an altogether ill-conceived mission.

    The episode highlights possible weaknesses in the quality of the PAP’s media strategy and advice, which may dilute the inherent advantages it possesses in the media battleground. Unfortunately, instead of looking into the mirror and learning from its tactical errors, it may be easier in the short run for the PAP to blame others. Hence, the vocal young have already been criticised by the PAP, and, since the majority of participants in the forum were reporters, so have the media.

    Monday, April 24, 2006

    REGISTRATION AND ACCOUNTABILITY

    After weeks of discussion about new media, attention has shifted to traditional media, thanks to the defamation suit against Chee Soon Juan and the SDP. Since defamation applies equally to online communication, the suit is a warning to internet users as well.

    One of the side shows in the case is of additional interest. One of the individuals named in the letter of demand, Arthero Lim, claims he had nothing to do with the allegedly defamatory content in the SDP newsletter since he had resigned from the party and its exco in January. However, lawyers speaking to The Straits Times (Monday 24 April) say he may still be accountable since his name is on the publishing permit, which expires only on 25 August. Lim had apparently written to the Registrar of Societies to remove himself from the party's exco, but had forgotten to write to the Registrar of Newspapers.

    It remains to be seen whether the plaintiffs will drop his name from the suit. However, the case chillingly illustrates the effect of registration. The Media Development Authority can ask political (and religious) websites to register (to see the forms, visit mda.gov.sg, which unfortunately is unavailable as I'm writing this). Registration involves naming the individuals who are taking responsibility for the content and providing details such as their addresses and sources of income. It is touted as a "light touch" administrative requirement that can be fulfilled easily. It is distinct from discretionary licensing, in that MDA does not decide whether or not the site can continue operating. However, Arthero Lim's case shows how individuals who have nothing to do with a particular offending article can be sucked into a lawsuit or criminal prosecution. For existing political sites, as well as licensed newspapers, it would be prudent for individuals associated with them to check if they are named in the permits or registration forms, and to manage the risks accordingly.

    Sunday, April 23, 2006

    POLITICAL MANAGEMENT OF BLOGS

    The legal position of blogs during the election period has been clarified, but intriguing questions remain about how these alternative media might behave, and what the government's response might be. There are certainly loopholes that enterprising media activists can exploit. First, they can use the web until they are asked to register as political sites. Second, they can restrict themselves to using email, which is outside the ambit of the registration requirement. Third, they can host their sites overseas. In the first two scenarios, they would still be subject to "post-publication" punishment if they fall foul of defamation or other laws. However, they are not subject to "prior restraint" (being shut up even before saying anything, which is what discretionary licensing and banning amounts to, and which is regarded in free speech discourse as the most illiberal form of control).

    In one possible scenario, all but a small handful of internet users will be sufficiently spooked by the government warnings that they will self-censor. The confusion surrounding the rules makes this scenario more likely. The newspaper, Today, contributed to this confusion in an article on 21 April. Attempting to educate readers about the rules now that the election writ had been issued, Today declared: "From now on, the gloves have to stay on. For bloggers, that is." It added: "What this means is that all political parties and individuals not registered with the Media Development Authority are not allowed to indulge in anything that can be construed as campaigning - until the elections are over." This is completely wrong. Parties can in fact use the internet for campaigning; they just can't use some of its multimedia and interactive features. As for individuals, they are free to use the internet as long as they are not asked to register - precisely the opposite of what Today claimed.

    A second scenario, at the other extreme, is that a large number of Singaporeans will exploit the existing loopholes, emboldened by their relatively unfettered use of the medium for the past several years. This will put the government in a dilemma. The fact is that the Singapore government, while infamous for its intolerance of dissent, has never been one to go after large numbers of ordinary citizens. Its actions have been mainly against professional politicians and the occasional individual who is deemed to be a political opponent. If the government now tries to prosecute 10, 20 individuals for breaching internet electioneering rules, it would be entering uncharted political territory. It will be extremely difficult to convince the majority of Singaporeans that such individuals really are a threat to stability, if the offenders are just ordinary Singaporeans and if their online comments are not particularly inflammatory. Trying to prosecute them would be a public relations fiasco.

    One of the remaining grey areas is the status of sites that may try to provide independent news coverage of the elections, as opposed to highly-opinionated commentary. As noted in an earlier posting below, the letter of the law provides an exception to licensed news providers (newspapers and broadcasters), including their websites. Thus, anything that Straits Times Interactive carries - including podcasts, streaming video, editorials telling Singaporeans how to vote, etc - is exempt from the internet electioneering laws. Independent sites are not, even if their content is identical. However, a group of media activists that tries to provide independent news reports on their website could, if challenged, argue that they are keeping to the spirit of the election rules, in that they are dealing in news, not advertising. The government may still win the legal argument on technical grounds, but it would probably lose the moral argument: it is going to be hard to persuade public opinion that independent citizens who abide by the standards of professional journalism do not deserve the same treatment as the institutional media. That would be tantamount to saying that WHO speaks is more important than WHAT they say.

    In parallel with the legal response, the government is also engaged in rhetorical campaign against alternative media. Blogging (which is merely a technology for easily editing websites, and has been put to a wide variety of uses) is being routinely stereotyped as mere entertainment, in an attempt to delegitimise the form in the eyes of the majority of Singaporeans who may not be technologically literate enough to know better. Visual media are being described as more emotional. Print media, on the other hand, are being associated with more rational and responsible discourse. However, this does not mean that print is subject to more relaxed regulation: since colonial times, newspapers and magazines have been subject to discretionary licensing.

    INDIVIDUALS ON THE INTERNET DURING ELECTIONS, PART 2

    After a couple of weeks of confusion, the Government has clarified some of the rules surrounding the use of the Internet during the elections. The clarifications were contained in a lengthy Straits Times interview with information minister Lee Boon Yang, published on April 15. As suspected (see previous post), the Government's earlier statement in Parliament included some positions that were not backed by existing laws and regulations.

    The key clarifications concern the status of the bulk of internet users, including amateur bloggers. Contrary to the Government's earlier claims, the electioneering ban only kicks in if and when they are asked to register as "political" sites. Until they are asked to register, they are free to carry on as before (subject of course to other laws of the land, such as defamation and contempt of court, that apply equally outside or within the election period). Registration, by the way, is a relatively simple administrative matter of filling out a form declaring the identity of the individuals behind a site, its source of funding, and so on. It is touted as a way to emphasise the need for accountability in political expression.

    The minister also acknowledged that certain types of internet use are outside the ambit of the internet electioneering regulations:

    1. EMAIL NEWSLETTERS

    As noted in my previous blog, the registration requirement at present only extends to websites. People exclusively using email clients (such as Outlook) presumably cannot be asked to register under the present rules. If they cannot be asked to register, they cannot be classified as "relevant persons" under the election rules, and therefore cannot be banned from internet electioneering. While the minister was not so explicit, he did concede that there was a loophole:

    "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 fa├žade of private communication and use e-mails, or a chain-mail system to conduct election advertising."

    He added the usual warning: "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."

    The upshot of this is that there is no "prior restraint" in email communication, only the possibility of "post-publication" punishment.

    2. OVERSEAS-HOSTED SITES

    When asked how the Government would deal with anonymous blogs or those hosted overseas, the minister said that the Media Development Authority had "oversight on these matters". Note that he did not use the term "jurisdiction", suggesting an acknowledgement that the regulators can only watch and cannot act against an overseas-based site. The minister said that, in any case, the Government had "always adopted a light touch for the Internet". He added: "So I will not lose much sleep over these scenarios."

    Friday, April 07, 2006

    INDIVIDUALS ON THE INTERNET DURING ELECTIONS

    The laws and regulations pertaining to political parties and other websites declared as political are now more or less clear (see previous posts below). However, it is still hard to pin down the status of others using the internet - including individual bloggers who occasionally comment on politics, individuals circulating articles to large email lists, and groups that are more organised but haven't yet been asked to register as political sites. These people make up the bulk of political commentators and opinion-sharers nowadays.

    The government, in Parliament (see full text below), said that "the streaming of explicit political content by individuals during the election period is prohibited under the Election Advertising Regulations" and added that there's a similar prohibition applying to the videocasting, or video streaming of explicitly political content. I have yet to find the relevant provisions in the existing laws and regulations. The government appears to be referring to the permitted forms of internet electioneering – the so-called "positive list" in the 2001 Regulations – which does not include audio/video streaming. However, this positive list applies only to parties and candidates. The Regulations are quite unambiguous about this. The positive list appears in a section titled "Division 1 - Candidates and Political Parties", and is introduced with the following preamble: "... only any of the following election advertising and no other may be published by any political party or any candidate or his election agent on what is commonly known as the Internet". There is nothing in the Regulations that states that the positive list applies to anyone other than parties, candidates and their agents.

    Note that there is no positive list for registered non-party sites (the so-called "relevant persons" such as Think Centre) for the simple reason that they are completely prohibited from online electioneering. "Division 2 - Relevant persons" is just 4 lines long, banning them from all election advertising. So it is quite clear that any website that's been asked to register as a political site by MDA will certainly not be allowed to used streaming, or any other internet technology, to influence the elections.

    However, that still leaves the larger body of groups and individuals who have not yet been asked to register. Until they are asked, can they use the full range of internet technologies freely (subject of course, to all the other laws, such as defamation, sedition and contempt of court)? The government says no, but I am still searching for the basis of that statement.

    Another hazy area is mass email, either for email newsletters or petitions. Again, there is explicit mention of these technologies in the 2001 Regulations - but only in the part that deals with parties and candidates. (The rules are described in this blog, 2 posts ago.) However, again it is unclear how these rules could apply to anyone who is neither a party/candidate nor a "relevant person" (registered political group).

    The issue of using email is made even more complicated by the fact that the MDA registration requirement is limited to websites, and not users of email. This is because, when the regulations were drawn up in 1996, the authorities were keen to show that they were only interested in "light touch" regulation; they explicitly stated that they were not about to regulate email, considering it to be private communication. At the time, email newsletters had not really taken off, and were hardly used for mass communication.

    Hence, according to the Broadcasting (Class Licence) Notification of 1996: "An Internet Content Provider who is or is determined by the Authority to be a body of persons engaged in the propagation, promotion or discussion of political or religious issues relating to Singapore on the World Wide Web through the Internet, shall register with the Authority within 14 days after the commencement of its service, or within such longer time as the Authority may permit."

    I am not a technology expert, but it seems that email does not necessarily use "the World Wide Web", and therefore does not come under the ambit of the regulation. Assuming that is the case, if a person never uses websites and exclusively uses email, the authorities cannot ask him to register, and cannot turn him into a "relevant person" for the purposes of the internet electioneering regulations.

    On the whole, it looks like we will soon see changes in the laws and regulations to keep up with changing technologies and trends, and to close loopholes.

    Wednesday, April 05, 2006

    STREAMING AUDIO/VIDEO DURING ELECTIONS

    Below is the government's reply in Parliament (3 April 2006) regarding the use of podcasts and other new technologies during elections. The election advertising laws create three categories of people, each treated differently. (See the earlier post below for more details.) First: political parties, which can use some of the internet's features to campaign. Second: non-party sites that have been told to register as political sites; these are banned from internet campaigning (defined very broadly). Third: all other individuals and groups, whose status remains unclear despite the government's statements. It would seem that individuals are free to share their views about the elections, until they are identified as "political" and told to register under the Internet Code of Practice, which would turn them into "relevant persons" under the Parliamentary Elections Act and pushing them into the second category above. That's the thrust of paragraph 5 in the government's reply below. Less clear is paragraph 7: it's not apparent which legislation this restriction comes from.


    QUESTION NO. *424 FOR ORAL ANSWER

    Mr Low Thia Khiang: To ask the Minister for Information, Communications and the Arts whether the Government intends to change the laws and regulations concerning the use of Internet and new technologies such as podcasts for campaigning during the General Election and, if so, what will be the main changes and when will such changes be made public.

    Response from the Senior Minister of State for Information, Communications and the Arts Dr Balaji Sadasivan:

    1. Currently, there are several pieces of legislation and guidelines which cover Internet campaigning issues or which touch on such matters. These include the Parliamentary Elections Act (PEA) and the Election Advertising Regulations under the PEA, and the Class Licence Scheme and the Internet Code of Practice administered by the Media Development Authority (MDA).

    2. Political parties, candidates and election agents are permitted to use the Internet for election advertising based on a “positive list” of activities listed in the Election Advertising Regulations.

    3. The “positive list” ensures the responsible use of the Internet during the elections. In a free-for-all Internet environment, where there are no rules, political debates could easily degenerate into an unhealthy, unreliable and dangerous discourse flush with rumours and distortions to mislead and confuse the public. The Government has always maintained that political debates should be premised on factual and objective presentation of issues and arguments. The regulations governing Internet campaigning have served well to safeguard the seriousness of the electoral process.

    4. Political parties, candidates and their election agents will continue to be guided by the “positive list” in the Election Advertising Regulations in the coming general elections. Party political websites must be registered with the MDA. Failure to register is a breach of the class licence conditions.

    5. Private or individual bloggers can discuss politics. However, if they persistently propagate, promote or circulate political issues relating to Singapore , they are required to register with the MDA. During the election period, these registered persons will not be permitted to provide material online that constitutes election advertising.

    6. Mr Low has asked about podcasting. I take podcasting to mean the provision of an audio feed over the Internet to subscribers. As I have noted, during the election period, political parties, candidates and election agents must keep to permitted election advertising set out in the “positive list”. Podcasting does not fall within this list.

    7. There are also some well-known local blogs run by private individuals who have ventured into podcasting. The content of some of these podcasts can be quite entertaining. However, the streaming of explicit political content by individuals during the election period is prohibited under the Election Advertising Regulations. A similar prohibition would apply to the videocasting, or video streaming of explicitly political content.

    8. At this point, the Government has no intention to amend the legislation regulating Internet campaigning during an election. But the review of government regulations is a continual process so as to ensure that they are kept up-to-date. We recognise that in our society, people will have their diverse opinion and some will want to share their opinion. But people should not take refuge behind the anonymity of the Internet to manipulate public opinion. It is better and more responsible to engage in political debates in a factual and objective manner.