COMMENT: 'No space' in the Parliament press room

FILE PHOTO – A general view of the Parliament House in Singapore June 2, 2016. REUTERS/Edgar Su/File Photo
FILE PHOTO – A general view of the Parliament House in Singapore June 2, 2016. REUTERS/Edgar Su/File Photo

You might not know this, but the Parliament press room is a rather miserable place.

Around the size of a classroom, it has space for some 30-odd reporters. The temperature is arctic, there is no wi-fi and mobile phones are not allowed for parliamentary sessions that stretch up to nine hours. Very rarely are we given parliamentary speeches in advance either, which makes transcribing speeches that can go on for 45 minutes each very challenging.

This in turn makes the release of stories in a timely fashion exceedingly difficult. But only Singapore Press Holdings and Mediacorp outlets get a live feed of parliamentary proceedings, so everyone else has to huddle in that chilly room to watch proceedings. Foreign media outlets have requested a live feed from Parliament multiple times, but to no avail.

It is not possible to cover Parliament from the press gallery either since it hovers directly above the chamber, and literally everyone can hear you if you clear your throat. Given how loudly this reporter types, the Serjeant-at-Arms would throw me out within five minutes.

All this is a far cry from the few occasions when I covered Parliament at a local media outlet years ago. I sat in the comfort of the newsroom, watching the live feed and checking speeches against delivery. This outlet even had the luxury of sending reporters to the press gallery to watch the reactions by Members of Parliament to proceedings.

An unusual development

PHOTO: Ministry of Communications and Information
PHOTO: Ministry of Communications and Information

But something miraculous happened during the two-day parliamentary session earlier this week, when Prime Minister Lee Hsien Loong answered to allegations of abuse of power from his younger siblings.

Ministry of Communications and Information (MCI) staff were on hand to give out advance copies of the major speeches by ministers, shortly before they spoke. Coffee and snacks – the atas kind, from Starbucks – were even provided, which I have never witnessed before in Parliament.

There is certainly a high level of international media interest in the Lee family feud – the likes of CNN, New York Times and the South China Morning Post have all covered it with “glee”, according to MP Christopher De Souza. Perhaps the authorities wanted to ensure thorough coverage of the session. Attendance was even taken.

There was a slight hiccup though, when a reporter from a Japanese newswire and I were initially denied entry to the press room. “There’s no more space in the press room,” said the staff at the security checkpoint on the first floor.

Based on our experience, “no space” or “local media only” is the standard excuse whenever foreign media are denied entry to a government event or press briefing. For example, when I covered the funeral wake of former Social Affairs Minister Othman Wok at his home, the media was allowed to go in at intervals to take photos of the VIPs who came to pay their respects.

When I asked if a colleague and I could go in too, we were told by an official, “Sorry, there’s no space in the house”. Othman’s family lives in a semi-detached house, so thankfully there was space for reporters from the two local media giants.

In the media business, everybody is competing to break stories first. It is an open secret, however, that foreign media outlets are often not invited to major government events. And when they do get invited, they do not always get equal access. Then there is the issue of restricted access to government press releases. Often, foreign media outlets get these releases hours after the publication of these specific announcements in local media.

As for the media coverage of the Lee family feud in Parliament, I was eventually allowed entry to the press room after I pointed out that my laptop and belongings were still there (I had exited the Parliament building briefly to run an errand). Upon entering, I observed there were no more than 10-15 reporters in the press room and that the room had not shrunk during my brief absence.

The Japanese newswire reporter ultimately found her way in when an MCI official overheard me relating to my fellow reporters what had happened and promised to sort it out. If we had not been allowed in, simply informing our colleagues in the room would have been a problem, since they did not have their mobile phones.

Our coverage went smoothly for the rest of the two days. Hopefully, the next time I go to Parliament, there will still be space for me.