By Harry Clarke-Ezzidio
Journalists and journalism play an integral role in any society, bringing to light stories that people will be interested in and need to know. Journalism, specifically political journalism, keeps those in power (and those seeking power) in check, their every move is documented, reported, and analysed. That being said, the media will also be there in a heartbeat when things aren’t going smoothly, and will provide wall-to-wall coverage in times of crisis (political or otherwise) to keep the people they serve – the public – informed. Freedom of the press allows journalists to be there when it matters. However, this freedom isn’t universal, placing journalists at risk.
Recently, a new controversial ‘fake news’ law came into effect in Singapore which many fear that journalistic freedoms may become compromised over. The Protection from Online Falsehoods and Manipulation Act aims to stop the publishing of fake news and ‘false statements of fact’ that could pose a threat to ‘public tranquillity’. The scary part about this new law is that it gives sole power to government ministers to determine what is considered ‘fake news’ – with the threshold used also being quite low. Many are rightly concerned about this as the system is open to potential abuse and exploitation, and naturally, there are concerns around free political speech. Many see this law as a way of suppressing free speech and dissenting views towards the government, as the ability to take things down gives the government way too much power (especially with its low threshold) whilst there’s no procedures in place to stop potential abuse of the law by the government.
It’s not as though Singapore has the best record of protecting press freedoms and allowing for criticism of their government.
Singapore is ranked 151st out of 180 countries for press freedoms in the 2019 World press freedom index, below countries like Russia, a country well known to censor any political opposition.
The scary part for journalists and their publishers are the potential penalties of falling foul of the law, with companies who are found to have broken the law face fines of up to $1 Million Singapore dollars – about £570,000 – whilst individual journalists or ordinary citizens can face up to 10 years in prison.
This law is a direct threat to press freedoms and the integrity of journalism. Journalists based in Singapore must be very wary about what they write or produce in the future – especially if it’s concerning the government. These types of laws stifle journalists, and make them afraid of perusing stories about the government, holding them to account for anything untoward they may potentially be up to, in fear that what they report will be considered ‘fake’ and face legal trouble. It’s potentially preventing people from being properly informed about the politics within their country as the main people who are meant to be informing them may be too scared to report on what’s really going on in fear of their freedom being taken away.
Journalists need protection for the important work they do, they shouldn’t risk their liberty just because they’re doing their job. It’s just over a year since journalist Jamal Khashoggi was killed under dubious circumstances, it’s more important than ever before to protect journalism and ensure press freedoms are intact.
It’s unacceptable that Singapore-based journalists are forced into this awkward position. Journalists should be protected, not stifled.