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Wikileak: S’pore journos stifled by govt limits

Fri 2011-Sep-2 @ +08 23:52:19 pm

WIKILEAKS | CABLEGATE REF 09SINGAPORE61

Two protected ST journos’ names exposed online

Younger Singaporean journalists told a US diplomat in 2009 that they felt increasingly frustrated by government limits on reporting and pressure on Straits Times editors to ensure coverage toed the line, according to a leaked diplomatic cable released at WikiLeaks on Tuesday.

A new crop of younger ministers eager to make their mark also placed greater pressure on editors to make sure reports came out exactly as they wanted, a senior Straits Times journalist said. Although the government restricted what could be reported in local news, there was great latitude in reporting from overseas.

Yahoo photo

The cable names the Straits Times’ current US bureau chief Chua Chin Hon, reporter Lynn Lee and journalism student Chong Zi Liang as those who spoke to the US diplomat, the deputy chief of mission Daniel Shields. Their names were marked “strictly protect” in the cable i.e not to be made public — but they have already been named in online news reports in Singapore.

One report said the cable appeared to be minutes of a meeting at the US embassy in Singapore.

Shields noted that the journalists’ frustration was a result of a generational change, although the level of press restrictions had remained the same. He said: “The traditional media in Singapore are certainly no more restricted today than they have ever been, and other than on race and religion, online speech is generally unrestricted. That raises the question why reporters seem to be complaining more, or at least more openly. We suspect this reflects in part a generational shift:

Younger Singaporeans are accustomed to having more latitude, and it likely grates on reporters not to be able to say in print the kind of things people routinely say in cafes or online. It may also be that the leaderships, own frequent suggestions of the need for (incremental) political reforms may be raising expectations that so far have not been met.

Reporters told him they were eager to produce more investigative and critical reporting, but were stifled by editors who have been groomed to toe the line. Reporters said they had to be careful in their coverage of local news, as Singapore’s leaders were likely to come down hard on anyone who reported negative stories about the government or its leadership, Chua told Shields.

There is a growing disconnect between ST’s reporters and its editors, with the reporters wanting to do more investigative and critical stories than the editors will allow. Chua lamented that the ST editors have all been groomed as pro-government supporters and were careful to ensure that reporting of local events adhered closely to the official line.

“Unless one of the editors is a “Trojan Horse,” someone that for years has successfully concealed any non pro-government leanings, none of them has the courage to publish any stories critical of the government.”

The rest of the cable in full:

The government exerts significant pressure on ST editors to ensure that published articles follow the government’s line, Chua said. In the past, the editors had to contend only with the opinions of former Prime Minister Lee Kuan Yew (now Minister Mentor) and former Deputy Prime Minister Goh Chok Tong (now Senior Minister).

However, a younger generation of government ministers is now vying for future leadership positions and one way for them to burnish their credentials with the old guard is to show they can be tough with the media, Chua said. As a result, several current ministers and second ministers (Chua did not say which ones) routinely call ST editors to ensure that media coverage of an issue comes out the way they want it.

While Chua admitted that he knew of no editors who had been fired or otherwise punished for printing articles critical of the government, he said that is because all of the them have been vetted to ensure their pro-government leanings.

Chua speculated that while Lee’s eventual passing may encourage the media to open up, the current crop of ST staff would only dare to buck the government’s line if it were clear that the majority of Singaporeans were already opposed to the government’s policy. Even then, the media would tread carefully as the government has an established track record of using the press, the ST in particular, to shape public opinion.

Chua admitted that domestically focused ST articles often read like Public Service Announcements. Chua noted that how the government intends to push a certain policy is often foreshadowed by extensive media coverage (published before the official policy announcements).

As an example, Chua pointed to the government’s recent decision to assist retirees who lost investments in “mini-bonds” following the collapse of Lehman Brothers. That decision followed a spate of media coverage casting the retirees, plight in sympathetic terms.

In contrast to the informal restrictions placed on domestic reporting, ST reporters are given wide latitude in their coverage of international events. Chua said he enjoyed a great deal of freedom during his stint as ST’s China Bureau Chief, and he expects to enjoy similar freedom during his new assignment as U.S. Bureau Chief. However, due to the expectations placed on editors, Chua said he would likely never advance higher up the ladder at ST.

ST Reporter Confirms Local Media Restrictions

Lynn Lee (strictly protect), a reporter for ST, confirmed the disconnect between editors and reporters. Lee highlighted the internal debate over the amount of coverage that the paper would dedicate to opposition icon J.B. Jeyaretnam (JBJ) following his death in September 2008.

Lee said that while the editors agreed with reporters’ demand for extensive coverage of JBJ political career and funeral, they rejected reporters’ suggestions to limit the amount of coverage devoted to (relatively long) eulogies provided by Singapore’s leaders. The leaders’ statements took up a significant portion of the allotted space, Lee lamented.

Lee also admitted that reporters practice self-censorship.

Recalling the case of a journalist in Malaysia who was arrested for reprinting a politician’s racially charged comments, Lee noted she would never write about any racially sensitive issues. However, self-censorship is not really needed as most censorship is done by the editors, Lee said.

Lee, who is now one of ST’s Indonesia correspondents, echoed Chua’s comments about having greater freedom to report stories (without censorship) while abroad. Highlighting her discouragement with her life as a Singapore journalist, Lee said she considers her current Indonesia assignment as a one-year test case that will determine whether or not she stays in the profession.

Novice Journalists Also Wary of System

Singapore’s journalism students think twice about building careers at home in the first place, according to online student journalist Chong Zi Liang (strictly protect).

Chong and two classmates in the journalism school at Nanyang Technological University started their own online newspaper, The Enquirer, to write free of editorial interference after the existing University-funded student newspaper refused to cover a campus visit by opposition politician Chee Soon Juan.

When asked how he would reconcile his journalistic ideals with the realities of a career in Singapore, Chong told [the US diplomat] that he feared it would be too “stifling” to remain here. Instead, he foresaw spending one or two apprentice years here before working somewhere else. Many of Chong’s journalism-school classmates think the same way, he said.

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2 Comments
  1. james permalink
    Sat 2011-Sep-3 @ +08 05:01:31 am 05:01

    I travel in Asia and enjoy reading the local newspapers to pick up the political-social pulse of societies. In all my travels, reading in Thailand, Indonesia, Korea, Japan, Australia, etc etc, I find reading Singapore’s New Straits Times the most sterile, pages of economic news and little insight or original perspectives, and very much PAP propaganda.

  2. Jimmy permalink
    Sat 2011-Sep-3 @ +08 10:25:29 am 10:25

    If this was not Wikileaks, Singapore would have launched into a massive lawsuit to “stifle” this report. Lee Kuan Yew’s paranoia still grips Singapore.

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