It’s time to free the mainstream media

It’s World Press Freedom Day today. It might seem like something that’s very specific to journalists, but the state of press freedom has a huge impact on everyone.

The things we read in papers and on websites, see and hear on television and radio, inform and affect the way we form opinions. Its influence can be seen in everyday interpersonal relationships all the way up to state policy.

The stakes are high when it comes to journalism. All over the world journalists have been – and are – struggling to do their work of bringing important stories to the people. Some journalists have given their lives. Others wait behind bars as courts and governments hurl dubious accusations to justify the unjustifiable fact of their imprisonment.

Journalists in Singapore face significantly less dangers. Some might even say Singaporean journalists are molly-coddled. But the matter of press freedom – and all the associated issues relating to freedom of speech – is just as relevant here as anywhere else in the world.

Singapore’s press freedom ranking makes for depressing reading every time a report emerges. While the rest of us react with sighs and shaking heads, the government has adopted the opposite approach: an eye-roll and a “we don’t need them anyway”. Prime Minister Lee Hsien Loong said that he doesn’t take such ranking seriously. Who cares what Reporters Without Borders says, anyway? They aren’t Singapore’s major investors.

But press freedom does matter. Without press freedom, it will be difficult, even impossible, for there to be an informed, active citizenry. The lack of press freedom in Singapore has already had an impact – important discussions on serious issues such as politics, race and civil liberties have not appeared in the mainstream media, which has contributed to a blind spot in public discourse. It is with the advent of the Internet, social media platforms and blogs that Singaporeans are beginning to debate such complex issues. There is a lot of catching up for us to do.

As people turn to the Internet, the government sometimes finds itself losing control of the discussion and even the agenda. The increasing influence of the blogosphere has led to the implementation of the new MDA licensing regime. The government’s justification was that it had to bring online websites in line with the regulated mainstream media.

But this race towards more regulation will not benefit society in the long run. We should not be trying to slap poorly-thought-out legislation on online websites. If we really want to establish parity, we would free the mainstream media.

Trying to regulate online news websites simply makes it more difficult for responsible, established platforms to operate, while the anonymous trolls plumbing the depths of bigotry and rumour-mongering continue to churn their content with impunity. And if we keep trying to clamp down on alternative platforms we will simply be pushing more and more readers towards these irresponsible and anonymously-run websites.

If we free the media, the professional integrity of trained, experienced journalists will win over the trolls. The credibility of our press will be strengthened, the climate of fear will be eroded and there will finally be more space for residents of Singapore to engage in the nation’s affairs, to step up and do our part in having a real Singapore Conversation.

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