COMMENT: Journalism, ethics and the Official Secrets Act

P N Balji
HDB officer Ng Han Yuan was fined $2,000 for leaking confidential information to a reporter. (Yahoo News Singapore file photo)

The Straits Times (ST) went off the beaten track when it recently published details of how its reporter Janice Tai got entangled in an Official Secrets Act (OSA) case involving her source, a Housing Development Board (HDB) officer. We learnt that:

  • A second reporter was involved, although the journalist was not named
  • Tai spent a night in a single cell
  • Her mobile phone was seized
  • She refused to reveal her source twice
  • On the third try, police got Tai to disclose the name – after getting her source’s agreement.

These are delicious details that ST normally shies away from reporting, especially when it comes to cases involving the paper or its staff. Embedded in those details is an important question: Why did the reporter need to get the permission of the HDB officer, Ng Han Yuan, to reveal his name as the source for a story that the reporter was working on? We will never know under what circumstances Ng decided to say yes to the reporter. She and Ng had come to know each other through an online dating service in March. He might have agreed because they have been friends since then. The police seemed to be adamant in wanting Tai to make the disclosure despite knowing the identity of the source from Tai’s phone messages/emails.

One of the cardinal principles of journalism is the protection of sources. That protection must be sacrosanct – even working out a compromise will damage the source-reporter relations. Revelations of such compromises will only make the reporter’s job even more difficult, especially in a tightly-regulated media environment like Singapore’s.

Not the first time

The New Paper (TNP) was confronted with two similar situations in the 1990s.

Reporter Angeline Song conducted an interview with a person who gave lots of details about a crime. The Criminal Investigation Department (CID) wanted to talk to her source to help in its investigations. TNP’s editorial management was caught in a quandary. Revealing the name of her source would destroy the ethics of her profession. Not revealing it would mean accusations that she and the paper were obstructing police investigations.

A way was found out of the dilemma. It was decided that the reporter would get her source to talk to the police on condition that he would not be prosecuted and that she would be present at the interview with the police. Fortunately, CID agreed and a crisis was averted. Was that a compromise? In hindsight, yes. But the TNP editorial management team involved in the case was convinced that the source would be protected. The reporter’s presence at the interview also gave the source the assurance that he was not being abandoned.

Reporter Suresh Nair had a scoop on the Super Puma crash at Sembawang Air Base in 1991. The problem with his story, from the Ministry of Defence’s (Mindef) point of view, was that every detail in it was accurate. It was clear the paper had infringed the Ministry’s version of the OSA. Mindef wanted the names of the sources who leaked the details to TNP. The permanent secretary for defence at the time, Lim Siong Guan, summoned the reporter and editor to his office and warned them of the consequences of not revealing the names of the sources. They declined to name names, thus risking prosecution in court. Luckily, the matter didn’t go to that stage; it was settled with a fine.

Play the game right

Singapore journalists go about their jobs without realising the all-encompassing nature of the OSA. Lawyer Jason Lee, of Peter Low and Choo LLC., said in an interview that even a mundane item like how many cubicles there are in a toilet can be considered secret. OSA prosecutions, though rare, will crop up from time to time. With this kind of tight legal framework, reporters need to be smarter at the game in making sure that when they communicate with the authorities or write a story, they need to do it in such a way that won’t force the government to act against them and their sources.

In the case of the Super Puma, one meaningful lesson was learnt. The details were too close for comfort for Mindef and there was no doubt that they were leaked by some people in the Air Base. No employer will tolerate a leak in his organisation. But if the TNP team had understood the law well and fudged the details of the accident, the chances of Mindef coming down hard on the paper could have been avoided.

P N Balji is a veteran Singaporean journalist who was formerly chief editor of Today, as well as an editor at The New Paper. He is currently a media consultant. The views expressed are his own.

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