Media convergence panel decides to let sleeping gods lie

Has the media convergence panel missed a big opportunity? (Yahoo! photo). (Yahoo! photo)Has the media convergence panel missed a big opportunity? (Yahoo! photo)

COMMENT by Cherian George (reposted from blog)

The Media Convergence Review Panel has missed an opportunity to nudge the Government's regulatory regime into the 21st century. The Panel took on the challenge of recommending how to harmonise rules across platforms, in an age when text, sound and images can flow from one format to another with ease.

In today's Singapore, internet freedom coexists with the 19th century colonial phenomenon  in which traditional media publishers are beholden to political leaders for publishing permits. This has created an "unlevel playing field", the Panel notes:

"Local media players are increasingly vulnerable to online competition from overseas media service providers who are not subject to local regulatory regimes."

The Panel could have argued for licensing and other rules to be significantly modernised in order to help local print and broadcast players compete with freer online media. Instead, the thrust of its report goes in the opposite direction, suggesting that large online players be subject to similar regulations as traditional media.

The final two paragraphs of its report do point out that "it will grow increasingly untenable for MDA to continue to apply the same regulatory approach as it did in the past" and that regulation alone is not a "magic bullet". But it has no specific proposals to offer. Rather, its chapter on licensing is about leveling down media freedom instead of leveling it up or even finding a happy compromise.

It states that it was guided by the principle that "licensing continues to be necessary", for three reasons: to protect the public interest through obligations imposed on licensees; to set local contents; and as a means of allocating scarce radio frequencies. The report is sprinkled with examples from more democratic settings such as Australia and the European Union.

Not even the staunchest free speech defenders deny that some regulation of media is necessary. In fact, certain rights are only achievable through state intervention — such as the communication rights of minorities and children, who are often under-served by the free market. International law also requires states to protect minorities against incitement to violence, hatred and discrimination.

Can Singapore media regulators be truly independent?

However, what the Panel's report glosses over is that there are international best practices for media regulation — and that Singapore is far away from them. For one, regulators should be as independent as possible from the government of the day, to ensure that they work in the public interest and don't become instruments of the ruling party. Second, any licensing system must be transparent and subject to independent review — and not give out or withdraw permits based on political loyalty.

In these regards, the European and Australian regulators that the Panel cites approvingly are not like Singapore's MDA. And licensing regimes in freer societies are not like Singapore's, where it entirely up to Cabinet to decide whether an entity should hold a licence.

This would not be the first time such harmonisation of regulation has gone in the wrong direction. After the Newspaper and Printing Presses Act of 1974 succeeded in taming local newspapers, offshore magazines like Far Eastern Economic Review and Asiaweek saw the niche to supply Singaporeans with more critical journalism than their local media could offer. The government responded by amending the NPPA in the 1980s to restrict the circulation of offshore publications deemed to be meddling in Singapore politics.

When global news channels emerged, equivalent instruments were introduced to ensure that the likes of CNN and CNBC would not be able to show up MediaCorp's news programmes by exploiting the regulatory loophole with impunity. Since pay TV is controlled by GLCs, Al Jazeera English has been kept off Singapore's TV screens, depriving television audiences here of one of the world's most respected news providers.

Now, with the apparent approval of major industry players, Singapore seems to be attempting similar harmonisation for the internet. Yahoo! News, now among the top online news providers in Singapore, is one possible target.

Surprisingly, Google is among the media giants represented on the panel. Google is a member of the Global Network Initiative, which has pledged itself to resist censorship. It is unclear how Google reconciles its own commitments to internet freedom with the Panel's recommendations.

The big loser, though, is not Google or any of the global media entities that regulatory harmonisation is supposed to address.

It is really Singapore, including its government. We needed a wake-up call. This high-level panel was in a position to give it. It has instead allowed policymakers to believe that it can be business as usual.

Related stories
'Control of mainstream media must be reviewed'
Wake up to the new digital reality
What now after Ferrari crash?

Cherian is an associate professor at the Wee Kim Wee School of Communication and Information, Nanyang Technological University, Singapore. Read his bio here.

  • Big potential for traditional food industry

    DUNGUN: There is a huge potential with the traditional Terengganu food industry, worth tens of million ringgits, if it is well marketed not only throughout the country but globally. Not only that, the success of the traditional food industries will help churn more entrepreneurs, supplement their income, provide job opportunities and boost the tourism industry. State entrepreneur, rural development, consumer and cooperative committee chairman Roslee Daud said that traditional food had come a long way since being sold as a small-scale business for decades and it was time to move on as both locals and visitors yearned to savour authentic fare which was a lucrative industry. Food like Tepung Bungkus, Tupat Sotong and Koleh Kacang are not extinct yet, he said. Roslee called on the village traders to work on the success of Keropok Lekor which had managed to become a state icon, producing many a millionaire. "If the Keropok Lekor traders can make it big, I am confident others trading in the various traditional food fares can also be success stories, provided they get themselves organised and work with the various government agencies," he said. Roslee added there were at least 32 government agencies like Tabung Ekonomi Kumpulan Usahawan Niaga (Tekun), SME Corporation, Malaysian Industrial Development Authority, Malaysian International Trade and Industry Ministry, Malaysian Agriculture Research and Development Institute, Serikandi Terengganu, Federal Agriculture Marketing Authority and other agro-based industries who were ever-willing to assist. "The district officers in the state, under the ambient of the Terengganu Entrepreneur Development Foundation, are also prepared to provide advice, suggestions and recommendations with the various Serikandi (women's organisations) to boost marketing of their food products. "We are doing all these not only to generate better income for the entrepreneurs but also to remind the younger generation not to forget our ‘jejak warisan’ (customs and traditions), which are our heritage," he said after launching the Terengganu Traditional Food Festival 2015 sat Dewan Arena Merdeka in Dungun. Roslee said that traditional food had come a long way since being sold as a small-scale business for decades and it was time to move on as both locals and visitors yearned to savour authentic fare which was a lucrative industry. "To be successful, we must not only ensure the food are tasty but maintain the quality, hygiene and customer service. You also have to ensure your products are affordable, well received and be creative to remain competitive," he said. Roslee added to date; only 30 per cent of food traders had attained the Bersih, Sihat dan Selamat (BeSS), or clean, healthy and safe, certification from the Health Ministry. The target, he said, was to have a minimum of 80 per cent traders to gain certification. "Likewise, we want all traders to obtain halal certification, whereas only 58 out of the over 1,000 of them who have done so. Just look at McDonald's Singapore which has attracted eight million customers a year, while Burger King and KFC have increased patronage by 20 per cent, after obtaining halal certification," he said. Meanwhile, the state is also involved in the Terengganu Thai Food Festival being held concurrently in Dungun. Organised by Syarikat Unik Warisan, the festival has attracted 70 stalls churning an estimated RM50,000 in total per day, said district social development department director Mohamad Adzahar Mohamad Zahari.

  • NAC withdraws grant for Singapore comic due to "sensitive content"
    NAC withdraws grant for Singapore comic due to "sensitive content"

    The Art of Charlie Chan Hock Chye, by award-winning comic artist Sonny Liew, examines Singapore history through the life and times of a pioneering Singapore artist.

  • Forestry dept to consider arming its officers

    KUALA LUMPUR: The Forestry Department is mulling a proposal to arm its officers working near international borders in efforts to assist security forces in patrolling the area. Its director-general Datuk Seri Dr Abd Rahman Abd Rahim said the proposal was to enhance border security, particularly near the Malaysia-Thailand border. “Currently, our staff are only equipped with machetes and compasses. They only wear trekking or jungle expedition attire. “We are considering having our staff who are placed near the porous borders to have suitable working gear and tools such as guns, combat boots and bulletproof vests, as a measure to aid security authorities guarding the international borders,” he told the New Straits Times yesterday. Rahman suggested that the international borders should be clearly marked, especially in the jungles. “Our borders should be clearly marked and fenced. “This way, security personnel can easily distinguish patrol areas and report suspicious activities occurring in these areas.” State department directors in Kedah, Perak, Perlis and Kelantan have also been alerted to work closely with the police and army as well as to start mapping state and international borders, said Rahman. He said even the Johor director had been told to have his men to be on alert at mangrove areas near the Malaysia-Singapore bor-der. The recent discovery of graves in Wang Kelian, near the Malaysia-Thailand border, had raised many unanswered questions relating to national security. Police were probing the possibility that enforcement officers, including rangers from the Forestry Department, were conspiring with human traffickers. On Wednesday, it was reported that the police had detained 37 people linked to human trafficking since early this year. The police believe that the perpetrators behind the migrant camps and mass graves in the deep jungles of Wang Kelian were among those detained. Inspector-General of Police Tan Sri Khalid Abu Bakar said that they did not discount the possibility of border enforcement and Forestry Department officers being involved. Rahman, however, stressed that border security was not the responsibility of his department and said they were ready to shoulder the responsibility together with the police and the army. “To date, no department staff had been called and none of them have been found to be in cahoots with human traffickers. “(Border security) is something new to us, but we are ready to commit and take on the responsibility together with the authorities,” he said. Meanwhile, Khalid said the department’s proposal for its staff to be armed when working near international borders could be considered, provided that the department provided sufficient justification for such a move. He urged all parties to stop pointing fingers at each other and not to find weaknesses and faults regarding the discovery of the graves. “When things happen and a discovery is made, everyone starts to point fingers and put the blame on each other, saying that this person did not take action and others are not doing their work,” he said. On claims by non-governmental organisations that the force had known about the Wang Kelian camp and graves, as family members of human trafficking victims had provided information years ago, Khalid said there had been no evidence to support the claims as police were not provided with locations. The camps and graves were only discovered after police launched an operation to search for possible camps for human trafficking victims following the discovery of mass graves and a large camp in Thailand, not far across the border from Wang Kelian.