Sometimes, who says it is as important as what is being said. Law Minister K Shanmugam was at his most reasonable when he spoke on what both interviewer and interviewee must have agreed are the key issues regarding POFMA in an interview (May 4) with The Straits Times. Whether others agree with either party is another matter altogether.
If you have zero knowledge of life in post-colonial Singapore, have just arrived in Singapore and are reading the ST for the first time, you would have been impressed by the great length the minister took to address these issues and you will come away with your own question: Sounds so reasonable. Why are so many people – journalists, academics, media practitioners, social media, politicians – so hot and bothered then?
Why have POFMA at all if laws already exist to force Internet companies to put up corrections or take down false news? “You have a specific problem, it’s good that Government puts out a legal framework that targets the problem, narrows the powers, gives greater supervision to the courts. This is voluntary action by the Government in that way….If you look at the Broadcasting Act, the definitions of when one can intervene are broader and the powers of the Government are greater.” Hard to argue against this, don’t you think?
Why should ministers be the ones to wield the power under this law? Why not civil servants? “Why shouldn’t it be ministers? You are accountable to the electorate, you are accountable to Parliament. The civil servants are not.” Meaning: no point having some independent panel or persons who are, in the end, not going to be responsible for the consequences. Entirely logical, surely.
Will the new law have a chilling effect? Will it lead to self-censorship? “The new law will not affect most people as it does not apply to people who forward fake news without knowing if it is true.” And academic research, according to Shanmugam as reported by The Straits Times, such work, which involves challenging an existing set of conclusions based on research, will not come within the bill. That is, unless the academics manufacture underlying data. Great. I remember reading somewhere that the idea is to target the specific perpetrators rather than those greater viral numbers caught up in the spreading of the fake news or falsehoods. It would be ridiculous to go after 40,000 or 50,000 people. Business as usual, then?
There is no doubting the thoroughness of the Government in dealing with what it perceives to be acts considered detrimental to the existing order of things. Particularly, it has said it will not hesitate to “act to prevent a diminution of public confidence in the performance of any duty or function of the Government”. Is public confidence in institutions being eroded in the online world? Are they so fragile?
The Government may think it has learnt how to harness the mainstream media for the greater good and is now gunning for the next frontier in the online world.
The way I see it, the Government has itself practically killed MSM. People who still follow MSM are mainly the diehards who are many universes away from Instagram or those at the other end of the spectrum – the millennials who are even more galaxies beyond the reach of MSM.
With its own resources plus those in MSM at its disposal, the Government is on a mission to tame the new frontier. This leads us to the original point. POFMA is turning out to be a fairly thought through piece of legislation meant to appear specific but has implications which may not have anything to do with the law itself.
Put bluntly, the record of the Government in muzzling the media is not at all encouraging. We don’t quite trust it to be benevolent, with or without POFMA.
Malaysia earns kudos for its freer press
Mahathir Mohamad, Malaysia’s 93-year-old millennial Prime Minister, is happy that his country’s media industry has jumped in its rankings in the World Press Freedom Index ranking this year.
Malaysia jumped up 22 places in the latest Index.
The Prime Minister took to Instagram to express his appreciation over the country’s improved ranking, The Star reported: “In conjunction with #WorldPressFreedomDay, I take this opportunity to commend the Malaysian media. We jumped 22 places to be the top in South-East Asia and 123rd in the world (out of 180 countries).”
Meanwhile Singapore has maintained its solid 151st position, same as last year’s. Need one say more?
Tan Bah Bah is a former senior leader writer with The Straits Times. He was also managing editor of a local magazine publishing company.