Singapore has slipped a further six places to 146th position in Reporters Without Borders (RSF)’s recently released 2006 Worldwide Press Freedom Index, several rungs below dictatorial states like Zimbabwe (140th), Sudan (139th) and Venezuela (115th), and way behind Arab Gulf monarchies Kuwait (73rd), UAE (77th) and Qatar (80th). Among Southeast Asian countries, only military-ruled Myanmar and Communist Vietnam and Laos fared worse.
Singapore also has the dubious distinction of being the only developed nation in the entire bottom half of the Index, which ranks 168 nations. If one excludes the Gulf states, which although awash with oil wealth are known for their authoritarian structures, the next developed economy that even comes close to Singapore is ranked 58 (Hong Kong).
According to RSF, the Index reflects the degree of freedom journalists and news organisations enjoy in each country, and the efforts made by the state to respect this freedom. It is based solely on events between 1 September 2005 and 1 September 2006. This means that the bad press that Singapore received from the recent IMF-World Bank meetings and the banning and suing of the Far Eastern Economic Review were probably not factored into this ranking.
RSF compiled its Index by asking freedom of expression organisations, journalists, researchers, jurists and human rights activists, to answer a survey of 50 questions about press freedom in their countries. The questionnaire covered various challenges faced by journalists ranging from violence and physical threats against them, government restrictions on their work and state control of the media. While Singaporean journalists do not suffer from physical violence like in the Philippines, some of the questions which Singapore scored low on probably included:
14. Improper use of fines, summonses or legal action against journalists or media outlets?
19. Problems of access to public or official information (refusal by officials, selection of information provided according to the media’s editorial line etc)?
26. Censorship or seizure of foreign newspapers?
28. Independent or opposition news media?
29. An official prior censorship body systematically checking all media content?
30. Routine self-censorship in the privately-owned media?
31. Subjects that are taboo (the armed forces, government corruption, religion, the opposition, demands of separatists, human rights etc)?
32. A state monopoly of TV?
33. A state monopoly of radio?
34. A state monopoly of printing or distribution facilities?
35. Government control of state-owned media’s editorial line?
38. Opposition access to state-owned media?
42. Licence needed to start up a newspaper or magazine?
44. Serious threats to news diversity, including narrow ownership of media outlets?
45. A state monopoly of Internet service providers (ISPs)?
46. ISPs forced to filter access to websites?
48. ISPs legally responsible for the content of websites they host?
49. Cyber-dissidents or bloggers imprisoned (how many?)
It is interesting to note that while the usual suspects appeared at the top (Nordic countries) and bottom (Communist states, absolute monarchies and military juntas) of the Index, France, the country where RSF is based, was ranked only 35th, while the US fared even worse at 53rd. In fact, RSF ranked the press freedom of the extra-territorial regions administered by the US and Israel separately, slamming them with 119th and 135th rankings respectively. This may go some ways to refute the charge by many “Asian values” proponents of a blindly pro-Western bias among international journalists.
The ranking is expected to invoke a robust response from the Singapore government, which will likely argue that it reflects the liberal agenda of the Western media and that Singapore does not need to pander to these Western interests. The government will probably also point to Singapore’s favourable rankings on other aspects of governance, economic development, worker productivity and even airport and sea port rankings in other international surveys.
- A great artistic interpretation of S’pore’s latest rankings can be found at My sketchbook.