Singapore—A documentary on independent news site The Online Citizen (TOC) will premiere at the Freedom Film Fest 2019 on September 28, Saturday, in Kuala Lumpur. Its director has said he hopes people will watch it and “ask why Singapore needs a guy like Terry”— referring to Terry Xu, the site’s editor.

On September 24 Yahoo News Singapore interviewed Calum Stuart,  who directed the film, which is entitled An Online Citizen,  for which the trailer can be viewed here.

According to his website, Mr Stuart, a 34-year-old UK national, is a freelance journalist and producer, as well as a “podcast director and producer for media startup site, New Naratif.”

Credits at the end of the trailer for An Online Citizen say that the documentary is a Freedom Film Network Production in collaboration with New Naratif. Mr Stuart and journalist Kirsten Han, his wife, are credited with writing the film. Ms Han is the Editor-in-Chief of the New Naratif.

The interview with Yahoo quotes Mr Stuart as pointing out TOC’s editor’s uniqueness. “Terry’s kind of a unicorn in some ways. I don’t know many others in Singapore like him.”

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Mr Stuart called the film “very observational”, and he told Yahoo that he hopes An Online Citizen would serve to illuminate the state of media in Singapore as well as the workings of an independent media site in the country.

He said, “I hope people (who watch it) will ask why Singapore needs a guy like Terry.

Some will watch it and think he’s a hero, and some will watch it and think he’s nuts and completely off the reservation.”

The interview recounts how the film came into being, with Mr Stuart having been approached by the Freedom Film Network (FFN) concerning Singapore’s POFMA Law (Protection from Online Falsehoods and Manipulation Act). Earlier this year, on May 8, POFMA passed with an overwhelming majority of 72 Members of Parliament (MP) in favour of it, 9 MPs against it, and 3 NCMPs (Non-constituency Members of Parliament) abstaining.

Before it passed, POFMA was an issue of concern not only in Singapore but around the world, especially with rights groups. Reuters reports Nicholas Bequelin, Amnesty International’s regional director for East and Southeast Asia, as saying that the new law “gives the Singapore authorities unchecked powers to clamp down on online views of which it disapproves. It criminalizes free speech and allows the government almost unfettered power to censor dissent. It doesn’t even provide any real definition of what is true or false or, even more worrying, ‘misleading.’” 

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In late May, Mr Stuart talked to Mr Xu, proposing to make the documentary. He had received S$5,000 for making the film from the FFN, and An Online Citizen was made within three months.

He told Yahoo, “I think very early on I decided that rather than doing a documentary focusing entirely on Pofma, I wanted to focus on the main people the law would affect, which is essentially the independent media scene.”

An Online Citizen will also show interviews with Remy Choo, who co-founded TOC, veteran journalist PN Balji, and Teo Soh Lung, a former Internal Security Act detainee.

Mr Stuart told Yahoo that the recent defamation lawsuit filed by Prime Minister Lee Hsien Loong could have an effect on how people perceive the film.

“There is the possibility it will receive more attention from the authorities or politicians but I honestly don’t know how people are going to respond to it.

I think the film might, due to current developments, seem a bit too flattering of Terry and TOC, which was never my intention.” /TISG

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