YOUR VIEW: Can't 'checks and balances' be done moderately?

People are seen surfing the Internet at a cybercafe. Singapore's feisty online community has reacted angrily to an announcement that news websites including one operated by Yahoo! will have to obtain licences subjecting them to rules governing traditional media

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So MDA’s extension of its regulatory licensing to 10 online news operators was the topic of one particularly interesting coffee session that I had with my friends recently.

"What do you make of that?" J asked those around the table as we tucked into some very good lattes and spinach quiches.

We were all pretty much struck by the responses of a few well-known online personalities who questioned why sites like TOC (The Online Citizen) had not been included, based on the assumptions of readership statistics and content.

S wondered aloud if we considered TOC and other sites like TRS (The Real Singapore), TRE (TR Emeritus) and Publichouse news organisations – and along that vein, credible news organisations?

Umm, replied one. Well, intoned J in his trademark deadpan manner, I read them about once a month to get a dose of anti-government vitriol. S said that she could not help but feel put off every time she visited these sites – their writers seemed to be angry at something or another all the time – although they were quite entertaining!

(Point to note: my coffee pals and I make up an educated bunch, some of us having studied locally and others overseas, so I would like to think we are all moderate creatures, having all been fairly exposed to Western and international concepts of the media being the Fourth Estate and so on.)

One thing which we all agreed on was that these online sites are certainly not the first places we, our friends or family look to when we want to find out what has taken place in Singapore and the world in the last 24 hours.

We turn to The Straits Times, or Channel NewsAsia, as well as international organisations like the BBC and NY Times. Of course, these sources are not without their flaws. Sometimes I find the flavour and take of events offered by articles in The Straits Times, for example, to vary between bland and too-positive when it presents the government’s views.

Three observations emerged from our ensuing conversation – that the online alternative sites in their current form are, more often than not, too narrow-minded in both scope and tone of reporting. We felt these traits also prevent them from taking the moral high ground that they often claim to have, especially in comparison to the mainstream media which they regularly vilify as having incomplete or one-sided views.

If these sites want to be seen as reliable news sources by us regular Singaporeans, they have certain responsibilities to uphold besides providing the oft-bandied “checks and balances” against the government.

Civic and social accountability, for one – in the on-going, nation-wide campaign against dengue, there was nary a pipsqueak from these sites to spread the word among their followers. There were comments criticising the slow response by the hospital after the first dengue victim’s death came to light, but where were the sites when it came to reporting about the danger of dengue or propagating preventive measures in the first place? An argument that this responsibility lies with mainstream media will fall flat in the face of their insistence as a news organisation of journalistic repute and credibility.

Next, the tone of their reports. What irked us was the blatant and unnecessary name-calling that goes on in these news sites. As S put it, really – how were we to take their articles seriously when their editorial teams deride those who present opposing views as “pro-establishment netizens”, and use labels such as “fine example of a braindead nunchuck” when referring to a political leader?

(My own view: it is quite ironic that a news site which promotes alternative views shoots down or resort to insults against those who provide views contrary to its own!)

I think the bunch of us were all for the media providing checks and balances to government policies, but the question we all had was why it seemed to be so hard for this to be done in a moderate and responsible way. Disagree all you want, but please be civilised about it and let the readers decide on a position on our own.

Should freedom have limits? Facebook recently acknowledged its failure to bar hate speech on its site. But there are times when checks are needed, especially against hate speech that is multi-racial and as diverse as Singapore. This peace is not a natural phenomenon but through decades of effort by Singaporeans. This is what the licensing regime is about.

There has been a lot of speculation about the regime being used to restrict the diversity of views out there. However, the jury is still out. The vibrancy will probably still be there, other than the fact that we remain conscious about the propagation of hate speech on internet sites that reach out to a lot of people.

Can the online community safely say that we allow unfettered speech and allow hate speech? Some things may be difficult to enforce but some efforts must be sent against hate speech. For example, when the two boys in Tampines were killed in an accident involving a truck, online posts started rumours saying that it was a foreign driver. It was just not true. Would it have sparked ill-will? Yes it would probably have, if the air was not cleared and it was ascertained that the driver was Singaporean.

There’s no denying that the moderate voices in our community, my friends and I included, wish that Singapore’s online alternative news sites similarly have broader responsibilities than what it currently demonstrates. Then maybe, just maybe, we will be able to take them as seriously as they would like us to.

Jeraldine See Yan Ting, 27
Account manager

Other Your View letters:
YOUR VIEW: Let's not criticise for sake of it
YOUR VIEW: Singapore must not become an 'angry and bitter' society
YOUR VIEW: What right do I have to complain?