Freedom of the Press
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Media freedom in Singapore made a small but significant advancement in 2011, as social media sites and other internet-based sources gave many voters in the May parliamentary elections their first real look at opposition candidates.
Freedoms of speech and expression are guaranteed by Article 14 of the constitution, but there are restrictions on these rights. The Newspapers and Printing Presses Act, the Defamation Act, and the Internal Security Act (ISA) allow the authorities to block the circulation of news deemed to incite violence; arouse racial or religious tensions; interfere in domestic politics; or threaten public order, the national interest, or national security. The Sedition Act, in effect since the colonial period, outlaws seditious speech, the distribution of seditious materials, and acts with “seditious tendency.” Singapore’s Parliament has been dominated by the People’s Action Party (PAP) since 1959, and ruling party members are quick to use harsh civil and criminal defamation laws to silence and bankrupt political opponents and critical media outlets. The vast majority of print and broadcast journalists practice self-censorship to avoid defamation charges.
The judiciary lacks independence and systematically returns verdicts in the government’s favor. The 2010 publication of the book Once a Jolly Hangman: Singapore Justice in the Dock, which questioned the impartiality and independence of Singapore’s courts in applying the death penalty, earned British author Alan Shadrake a sentence of six weeks in prison and a S$20,000 (US$15,400) fine for “scandalizing the court” in November 2010. The sentence was upheld on appeal in May 2011.
Annual licensing requirements for all media outlets, including political and religious websites, have been used to inhibit criticism of the government. Foreign media are also subject to such pressures and restrictive laws, and are required by the Ministry of Information, Communications, and the Arts to post bond and appoint a local legal representative if they wish to publish in Singapore. Films, television programs, music, books, and magazines are sometimes censored; all films with a political purpose are banned unless sponsored by the government. In October 2011, police investigated the Singapore Democratic Party for organizing a public video conference with two people who were detained under the ISA. Journalists, in general, can gather news freely and without harassment. Cases of physical attacks against members of the press are extremely rare, and none were reported in 2011.
Nearly all print and broadcast media outlets, internet service providers, and cable television services are owned or controlled by the state or by companies with close ties to the PAP. The British Broadcasting Corporation (BBC) World Service is the only completely independent radio station available in the country. Satellite television is forbidden. A substantial variety of foreign newspapers and magazines are distributed uncensored, but the government is authorized to limit the circulation of print editions.
The internet was accessed by 75 percent of the population in 2011. Internet use is widespread in Singapore, but the government attempts to restrict and control it by licensing internet service providers. Websites offering political or religious content are required to register with the Media Development Authority, and a website’s owners and editors are criminally liable for any content that the government finds objectionable. However, bloggers and discussion groups increasingly offer alternative views and a virtual channel for expressing dissent. During 2011, the online sphere for the first time provided the political opposition with an unfiltered medium to reach voters. In January, in what was widely interpreted to be a move against political commentary in advance of the upcoming elections, the government ordered the Online Citizen, a journalistic website, to register as a political association and reveal the identities of its staff. The government claimed that political registration was necessary to limit foreign involvement in politics, and that the Online Citizen was a political participant and not an observer. Despite these attempts at intimidation, the internet was widely seen to have played a significant role in informing voters ahead of the May parliamentary elections.