WikiLeaks: Significant gov’t pressure put on ST editors

Liyana Low
SingaporeScene

WikiLeaks has released a cable report on 'Journalists frustrated by press controls' in Singapore. (Screengrab from Wikileaks site)

A senior staff member of Singapore's largest newspaper admits there's "significant pressure" on its editors to follow the government line, according to a newly released WikiLeaks document.

As a result, reporters within the paper are "increasingly frustrated" with the restrictions on what they can report and often seek overseas postings where restrictions are fewer.

The document, which appears to be written minutes taken in 2009 at the Singapore Embassy, highlighted the private views of two Straits Times journalists and a then-journalism student.

Chua Chin Hon, who is currently the paper's US bureau chief, was quoted as saying that reporters have to be careful in their coverage of local news, as Singapore's leaders will "likely come down hard" on anyone who reports negatively about the government or its leadership.

Without naming names, he also recounted how several ministers at the time "routinely call editors" to ensure that media coverage of an issue "comes out the way they want it."

Chua also said that ST editors had been vetted to ensure their "pro-government leanings" and that while local reporters are "eager to produce more investigative and critical reporting... they are stifled by editors who have been groomed to tow the line."

In the WikiLeaks cable, Chua pointed out how there is extensive media coverage before the government intends to push out a certain policy, adding that some articles read like "Public Service Announcements".

He cited how during the 2008 collapse of Lehman brothers, there was a spate of articles writing about the retirees who lost money in the mini-bonds in a sympathetic manner, and this was followed by the government's decision to assist those retirees.

Singapore's largest newspaper has often been criticised for its pro-government stance. (Yahoo! photo)

Another reporter, Lynn Lee, who is currently the paper's Indonesian bureau chief, confirmed the restrictions on local media, highlighting the internal editorial debate over the covering of the opposition in Singapore.

An example she gave was the conflict over the amount of coverage that the paper would dedicate to opposition icon J.B. Jeyaretnam (JBJ) following his death in September 2008, saying that while editors agreed with reporters' demand for extensive coverage of his funeral, they rejected reporters' suggestions to limit the amount of coverage devoted to eulogies provided by Singapore's leaders.

In the end, the leaders' statements took up a significant portion of the allotted space, Lee said.

In addition, Lee revealed that self-censorship was a common practice for reporters.

She said that she would never write about any racially sensitive issues, citing the case of a journalist in Malaysia who was arrested for reprinting a politician's racially charged comments.

In contrast to the limitations imposed on local reports, Chua said that the paper's reporters are more free to write about international events. Chua said he enjoyed a great deal of freedom during his stint as China Bureau Chief.

The leaked cable also contained the views of then-journalism student Chong Zi Liang, who said he could see himself working locally for one or two years before going off somewhere else, because he thought it was too "stifling" to remain in the country.

The document is part of a collection of 251,000 unedited and confidential US diplomatic cables that can be found on the whistle-blowing WikiLeaks website, founded by Julian Assange.

In the latest batch released online, several more can be found about Singapore.

One talks about the state of Singapore's opposition in 2004 and another on how the government actively co-opts talented Muslims to become Members of Parliament.

Last year, WikiLeaks revealed what key Singapore diplomats thought of neighbouring Asian leaders as well as what former leader Lee Kuan Yew thinks about North Korea.

Reacting to the news, former Today chief editor P N Balji, who has spent 35 years in Singapore journalism and is now a media consultant, told Yahoo! Singapore that the leaks "tell an old story", and there was a need now to study how the old media is trying to meet the challenges of the new media.

"There is enough evidence to show how the old media is forced to come out of its comfort zone and publish stories which broke in the online world. Something we never saw, say five years ago," he said.

"A new relationship is developing between the government and media. The biggest loser, if The Straits Times continues to lose eyeballs, is the government. Then it will be without a pervasive platform to get across its message," he pointed out.

"How this relationship will play out will depend a lot on whether editors can make the big switch to the new normal in Singapore journalism and how the government will respond to such efforts," he added.