Opinion

Press censorship in Singapore and Russia – rife but serves different purposes

Lee Hsien Loong and Vladimir PutinSingapore came just one place behind Putin’s Russia in the 2015 Reporters Without Borders world press freedom rankings. And while there are similarities between the two countries, State control of the media is used for different ends, claims Edward Cowley.

In Russia, the media goes on the offensive to promote foreign and domestic policy while, in Singapore, media control is more passive – the idea being to avoid rocking the boat.

The Russian media benefits from being able to retreat into the Russian language. This has had the effect, whether intended or not and in line with current Russian foreign policy, of isolating the country from the rest of the world, particularly the West. Singapore, on the other hand, is a world trading centre where English is widely spoken and as such is one of the key media centres of Asia Pacific.

Edward Cowley

Edward Cowley

Yet despite the Singapore government’s wish to turn it into a hub for Asian media, serious problems remain with freedom of speech, and this month Singapore’s human rights record will face scrutiny by the United Nations for the second time.

Benjamin Ismail from Reporters Without Borders told Mumbrella Asia that while Russia and Singapore are similar in terms of the score they receive for press freedom, “this is the one of the few things they have in common”.

Media ownership

The media in Singapore is dominated by two, large State-controlled companies, Singapore Press Holdings and Mediacorp. There is also a growing army of small, independent news websites such as The Online Citizen and Mothership.sg, which have a limited readership and influence but which are freer to write as they please.

In Russia virtually all TV channels, newspapers and the majority of news websites are controlled by the Kremlin through a network of loyal companies and editors. There are four notable exceptions: Dozhd’ a subscription cable TV channel; a radio station Echo Moskvi (The Moscow Echo); a newspaper Novaya Gezeta, and Meduza, an online news site formerly known as Lenta but which changed its name and moved to neighbouring Latvia when most of its editorial staff were fired two years ago because they refused to toe the Kremlin line.

The TV is your only friend

Russian TelevisionRussia’s three, main State-controlled TV channels are blatant in their support of the government. They are available for free virtually everywhere throughout Russia’s 11 times zones, so it figures that in Russia most people get their news from the television. The TV is a powerful propaganda tool – in many parts of the country life is hard and tedious, and there is often nothing much to do except to get drunk with your neighbour or watch TV.

Artemy Troitsky, a media critic, lecturer and one of the founders of Soviet Rock music in the 1970s believes that the influence of State-broadcast propaganda in Russia is a serious worry.

“TV zombifying turns people into animals [and] promotes xenophobia and hatred at all levels.

“The TV in contemporary Russia is a source of evil and has turned a whole nation into hateful xenophobes,” he told Mumbrella.

Strong words, but what exactly does he mean?

Rebrand the revolution

The Ukraine crisis has been a pertinent example of Russian State propaganda and misinformation at work. Since Vladimir Putin came to power in 2000 the press has slowly been muzzled.

Russians were told to think that the Maidan protests in Kiev over the winter of 2013/14 which saw the ousting of pro-Russian president Viktor Yanukovych and the eventual election of a pro-western government, was not a popular uprising but the work of right-wing fascists who were being bank rolled by the CIA.

Image: Brooking

Image: Brooking

In both Russia and Ukraine the word fascist goes a long way because of the losses the USSR suffered at the hands of Nazi Germany. As well as fascists, the Russian media also rebranded the protesters as Banderites, after the Ukrainian nationalist Stepan Bandera, who sided with the Nazis against Soviet forces. By dredging up emotive historical associations and using them inaccurately decades later Kremlin propaganda was able to rebrand the revolution in Ukraine.

Yes, there were some protesters who were either Ukrainian nationalists or who sympathised with them but even conservative estimates put their number at no more than 10 per cent.

“The reporting from the Russian side was truly eccentric. No one could have imagined one year before this that this could happen. That Russians would think of Ukrainians, a formerly brotherly nation, as fascists and puppets of the US. This took huge resources. Even during the days of the USSR there has not been such a tsunami of propaganda,” says Troitsky.

Dredge up history, re-heat hate

The same techniques used by the Russian media in Ukraine were used most recently when Turkey shot down a Russian fighter jet which Turkey claims violated its airspace.

As soon as the plane was shot down, the major TV channels were digging up all the bad things Turkey has done and propaganda materialised about the Russian-Turkish War in the 19th century. The propaganda on TV works in tandem with discriminatory actions against Turks living in Russia. The Meduza news portal reported on 11 December that Turkish students at a number of universities in Russia had suddenly been kicked out for “academic and financial” issues.

Blame a foreigner

In Singapore, foreign influence also tends to draw blame when things go wrong. But the way this plays out is not as far removed from reality as it in Russia. For example, in Singapore migrant workers from the Asian subcontinent are underrepresented in the media and elsewhere and there has been a building of negativity towards foreign workers, including those from the west.

Anton Casey's Facebook posts

Anton Casey’s Facebook posts

A white paper revealing the government’s plans to dramatically expand the island’s population from five million to just under seven million by 2030, which will mean a massive influx of foreigners, has been at the heart of local discontent. This came to a head in January 2014, when British banker Anton Casey was forced to flee the country after a series of social media posts in which he described a local taxi driver as a “retard” and public transport commuters as “the poor”. The media was unforgiving. Casey left the country with his family after receiving death threats.

Kirsten Han, a freelance journalist based in Singapore, told Mumbrella that because there is no Freedom of Information Act in Singapore getting hold of detailed data on certain sensitive issues, such as migrant workers or the death penalty, is difficult.

As in Russia, NGOs, many of which are foreign, are branded as political organisations in Singapore. This means their funding is restricted – an indirect way of reducing foreign influence in the country. Nor do they receive much of a voice.

“In the mainstream media it would not be very likely to see a story run if the source was a NGO,” says Han.

The Media Development Authority, used in Singapore to police the media, has also tried to curtail the growing number of online media outlets by branding them political associations. The Online Citizen was recently gazetted as a political association, meaning it can’t access foreign funding.

“It scares some people away from donating so it restricts the growth of the site,” explains Han.

In Russia, the intolerance of NGOs is more extreme. Last Spring a law was passed labelling many foreign NGOs “undesirable organisations”. Many are innocuous western charities but all have now concluded operations in Russia, and the media is banned from mentioning them.

The media as a nation building tool

Neither the media in Russia nor Singapore plays the role of a defender of citizen’s rights. The mainstream media in Singapore has never pretended to be the fourth estate.

“The mainstream media is a nation-building tool, they explain and educate about government policy,” explains Han.

The government also carefully uses the media in Singapore to maintain the ethnic and religious mix, as well as talking up all the wonderful achievements made by Singapore. “They want you to think of them as a paternalistic government that takes care of you,” says Han.

In Russia the message is rather different; there are two main messages the media puts out there, according to Jim Kovpak, an independent media critic and freelance journalist based in Moscow, as explained to Mumbrella.

“The message is that the west wants to humiliate us, to destroy us, because we’re this great power with an independent foreign policy and they want to crush us and get our resources,” he says.

The idea painted by State media, Troitsky agrees, is that Russia is surrounded by enemies.

“Media coverage of what’s going on around Russia is absolutely paranoid. It’s full of conspirology that the US is trying to destroy Russia. Anything bad that is hurting Russia is always done by enemies from outside,” he says.

It’s also convenient to focus on foreign policy as it shifts people’s focus away from the deteriorating situation at home. Late last year it was reported that the number of Russians living below the poverty line had increased by 2.3 million to 20.3 million. Overall this year, the Russian economy is expected to shrink by four per cent as tumbling oil prices and western sanctions over Ukraine take their toll.

“In Russia, people understand the corruption and the falling ruble,” claims Troitsky.

“Therefore it would be ineffective to try and lie to people about what is going on here, although it does happen as well.

“So instead they focus on what’s happening in America, as unlike the situation in Russia, people can’t verify what’s going on abroad,” Troitsky adds.

Stability not chaos

The second message is that people should not hit the streets to protest because what Russia needs is stability. If you protest, they say, you’ll get chaos and although we’re not perfect, without us it will be much worse.

Here, Ukraine again presented a problem for the Kremlin spin doctors. Part of its message is that Russians need a strong leader to tell them what to do; they need a special sovereign democracy. But if Ukraine manages to clean up corruption and implement a working democracy then that presents a problem, too. Part of the propaganda narrative is that Ukrainians living in eastern and southern Ukraine are not really another nationality and are the same as Russians.

How do you get the press to say what you want?

The media environment in Singapore has been tightly controlled for decades and self-censorship plays an important role. The threat of litigation hangs over any reporter who thinks of stepping out of line, and some sensitive issues such as nepotism and corruption in the government are mostly ignored. Journalists who raise questions about the impartiality of the judiciary are vulnerable to contempt of court charges.

Other sensitive issues like crime, drugs and homosexuality are covered, but only in so far as they are depicted as negative. An independent magazine and website publisher based in Singapore told Mumbrella that homosexuality is a particularly tricky subject to cover.

Book about gay penguins banned in Singapore featured in Pink Dot SG video

Book about gay penguins banned in Singapore featured in Pink Dot SG video

“You can’t promote an “alternative lifestyle”,” claims the publisher, who would prefer to remain anonymous. However, the rules for what is permissible appear to be stricter for print publications than for websites.

“What’s not really clear is what they mean by ‘promotion’. You can impart knowledge that there are gay events but you can’t suggest that alternative lifestyles are on a par with the nuclear family,” he says.

In Russia, a well-publicised law known in the English language media as ‘the gay propaganda law’ was passed unanimously in 2013 which made it an offense to distribute propaganda promoting non-traditional family values among minors.

The law was criticised for its broad and vague wording which has meant it’s now very difficult to mention homosexuality in anything other than a negative way in the media.

“If you say that non-gay sex and gay sex are both okay, you’re busted. Especially if you’re a journalist,” Alexey Kovalev, a Russian reporter, told Mumbrella.

In Singapore, the magazine publisher says he’s never been told what to write but that the MDA will sometimes reprimand the media for the way in which certain topics are covered.

“The MDA are very wary of being talked about as censors. It’s all policed after the event and they will often only act if someone complains,” he says.

Han says she’s never got into trouble with the MDA but also admits to being very careful about how she phrases things. She points out that journalists in Singapore feel they have to self-censor and that’s enough for them to do so. (A former Mediacorp journalist Mumbrella interviewed in 2013 said that self censorship among mainstream media journalists in Singapore was “inevitable”, because of the way the system works).

Han says it’s easy for the government to make sure the mainstream media toes the line because licenses can be revoked at any time and [the government] can appoint or dismiss the editor and have a say in who the major shareholders are.

A licensing regime introduced in 2013 for independent online news sources is also creating problems. Any news site that receives more than 50,000 views over a two-month period is required to secure a license and post a bond of $50,000. The Breakfast Network was one victim of this – deciding the paperwork was too much and ceasing operations. Its founder later, former Straits Times journalist, Bertha Henson, later launched a new publication called The Middle Ground.

But it is the middle ground that publications have struggled to fully occupy in Singapore. For instance, while Mothership.sg, which covered the elections with relish in September last year, has had to get a licence under the MDA’s framework, Coconuts, a local city news site which did not cover the elections much by comparison, has not. Coconuts went hard covering the haze instead.

The picture of government influence on the mainstream media is much starker in Russia than in Singapore. A source told Mumbrella that there are weekly meetings between representatives of the Russian presidential administration and the heads of all the networks. As well as clarifying the general message [the administration] wants to get out there, it also gives out black lists on what to avoid.

Roy Ngerng

Roy Ngerng

Amos Yee

Amos Yee

But sometimes the threat of litigation alone is not enough. Singaporean bloggers, Amos Yee and Roy Ngerng, faced litigation and imprisonment in two distinctly different cases. Yee made numerous derogatory comments about former Prime Minister Lee Kuan Yew in a YouTube video but was arrested and charged instead for inciting religious hatred against Christians. Ngerng accused the Prime Minister Lee Hsien Loong of misappropriating funds in a State pension fund and while he apologised he continues to face an intimidating compensation bill and legal fees.

But no journalists have faced violence or intimidation while going about their work. In Singapore it’s more likely to be the publication that will get in trouble, whereas in Russia things are not always so subtle.

Throughout 2015 a handful of journalists were jailed on what were widely believed to be trumped up criminal charges created in order to limit their activities, while at least two journalists died in unclear circumstances. Several reporters investigating the deaths of Russian soldiers serving in Ukraine were threatened and attacked while a BBC team investigating the same thing had its camera smashed and recordings deleted.

Reporters Without Borders considers Russia a more dangerous place to work as a foreign journalist.

“I know there are more direct violations (threats, aggression, intimidation, etc) in Russia than in Singapore,” says Ismail.

Offensive propaganda

While in Singapore the authorities are keen that things are kept light and inoffensive, the same cannot be said for Russia. A troll factory – where people are paid to post comments on social media anonymously – operating in St Petersburg was recently exposed by Russian journalists working undercover.

The Russian government was able to distance itself from what was going on when the story broke, but the journalists covering it said that leaked documents linked the opaque company running the troll factory to power structures close to the Kremlin.

“They have arsenals of pre-made propaganda pictures or censored messages,” claims Kovpak.

“Anything involving Europeans is gay; not only do they have the most explicit pictures from gay parades but even whole reserves of gay porn.”

A woman working there and posting on Live Journal told the British media when the story broke in April this year that she was told not to tell her friends about where she worked.

“We had to write ordinary posts about making cakes or music tracks we liked but every now and then throw in a political post about how the Kiev government is fascist or that sort of thing,” she says.

Fake photoOne fake photograph showed a couple of US army personnel and another guy with a Ukrainian flag on his shirt, as if he’s in the Ukrainian army, holding a US flag and kissing it. The idea is that Ukraine is the prison bitch of the US. But if you take a closer look at the man kissing the US flag he doesn’t look very Slavic. In fact, according to a source who spoke with Mumbrella, the guy was Bangladeshi and the other two soldiers were from the US corps of engineers who had been doing flood relief work there. The trolls had just Photoshopped a Ukrainian flag on the man’s shirt sleeve.

The free press

Reporters Without Borders Press Freedom Index 2015 (145-161)

Reporters Without Borders Press Freedom Index 2015 (145-161)

Despite their low rankings on The Reporters Without Borders World Press Freedom Index, Singapore (ranked 153rd) and Russia (152nd) do have a small number of media outlets which are regarded as free from State control. While the independent media lacks influence over the majority of the population in both countries, in Singapore there is the view that things are changing slowly for the better, but in Russia the last remaining free media outlets face growing pressure.

Han thinks the future of small, independent news websites in Singapore is guaranteed and although they face problems, many of them are growing. Han, who writes for The Online Citizen, explains that one of the biggest problems Singaporean journalists face is that they don’t receive the same access to information that mainstream media does.

“Local websites don’t get to go to press conferences; if they get press releases they get them late and if they write in with questions they don’t always get a response from the government,” she says.

The publisher Mumbrella spoke to points out that although there are driven and talented people working in Singapore part of the problem is the general lack of talent among journalists.

“Journalism, in general, is not a particularly well respected trade here. I don’t get the feeling that there is the aspirational mentality to do investigative reporting here,” he says.

In Russia, one thing the press does not suffer from is a lack of talent, rather where that talent is directed.

Dozhd’, the last remaining independent TV channel, was almost closed after backlash from a poll which, hypothetically, asked if it would have been better to surrender Leningrad to the Nazis than defend it, which resulted in the loss of a million lives.

The poll, while perhaps historically insensitive, was regarded as unpatriotic at a time when nationalism in Russia is reaching ever-greater heights. But yet far more insulting material – often funded and tacitly endorsed by the State – is broadcast regularly. One example is the recent film by acclaimed director Nikita Mikhalkov, Burnt by the Sun 2. A film highly insulting to military veterans but which enjoyed a huge budget – some of it via government grants.

“This is the thing you’ll see throughout Russia, this arbitrariness. It makes people self-censor, but from the power point of view that that is good, because everybody is walking in a minefield,” says Kovpak.

Although the list of independent media resources in Russia is paper-thin, Troitsky believes that what remains will be allowed to continue operating, “so they can say to foreigners that they have an independent media,” he says.

Does the propaganda work?

Troitsky who has left Russia to live in Tallinn, Estonia, partly due to the political situation, thinks that many people in Russia believe what their televisions tells them and, for this reason, is so dangerous.

“People I speak to do believe it. Normal people do support the government’s foreign policy and they believe the propaganda,” he says.

In Singapore there is more skepticism but it’s not like regional rival Hong Kong where a free press, although reportedly in decline, is really important.

“Everyone is aware that they are getting a filtered view but I don’t detect a widespread desire to go hunting for alternative voices. People tend to either read what the mainstream press writes and accept it or be cynical about it and just avoid it,” says the Singapore-based publisher.

In both Singapore and Russia, whether people believe what they are told depends on their demographic and their education; younger, better educated people tend to get a lot of their news online. Although it is this reporter’s experience that in Russia some young, educated people who are perhaps more patriotic support Russia’s foreign policy and the media message that goes with it.

What about the future?

Reporters Without Borders shared with Mumbrella that it is likely that both Singapore and Russia will descend further down the Press Freedom Index next year. With events over the past 12 months, a good case can be made for either country dropping the furthest (the 2016 rankings are due out next month).

Edward Cowley is a Moscow-based freelance journalist

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