Voices of Freedom

The following article is posted here for my own records as it does refer to an issue that has from time-to-time been mentioned in passing in the Singapore Blogosphere – namely that it tends to be dominated by the usual suspects, middle-class, educated, males and there does seem to be a lot of ‘journalists’, lawyers, postgraduate students, undergraduate students, and IT experts dominating the sg blogosphere. So where is the marginalised Singaporean?

Blogs and podcasts enable a powerful and authentic voice for marginalised communities sidelined by mainstream media

Nathalie McDermott
Wednesday May 30, 2007
The Guardian

Prisoners cannot podcast because they do not have access to the internet, but if they could the material would be fascinating. It would be authentic, raw and compelling without being sensational. Instead of the stock answers we hear from prisoners in television soundbites, you might hear “Jamie” own up to the fact that he has never told his kids he is inside because he is so ashamed, and that they think he is at work. Or about how “Bruno” only gets a buzz from crime and feels “the butterflies when I’m on a bit of work”, and has never held down any other job. You’d hear prisoners talking to each other, intimately and frankly, from a shared position of trust and common knowledge.

I worked in a prison for three years, training offenders to run a talk radio station, and the thing that struck me most was how much better the content was than anything I have ever heard – or produced when I was a journalist – on mainstream media about prison issues.

People would come to visit the station, listen to the programmes and chat to the prisoners. Without fail, whatever their views on the criminal justice system, they would invariably leave with an entirely different perception of serving offenders and how we as a society deal with crime.

Thrilling tool

This is the power of simple conversation. Citizen journalism – real people speaking to real people through podcasts and blogs – means that we can have those conversations online, and this is what makes it such a thrilling tool for positive social change.

There is a lot of debate in the media about the term “citizen journalism”. Many conventional journalists prefer “user-generated content” or “social media” to set it apart from what they have been trained for years to do, which is fair enough I suppose, since the two are distinct. Citizen journalism is content – text, photos, audio and video – that is generated by the public and sometimes, but rarely, makes its way into a mainstream newspaper or broadcast bulletin. It is mostly found in blogs or on networking sites such as MySpace. The main difference between the two mediums is that citizen journalism cuts out the middle man, and the story is told from a position of first-hand knowledge and partiality.

The reason that this can be more engaging is that someone at the centre of an issue can get more out of their interviewees because of the trust that comes from shared experience, background or culture. So while there will always be a need for trained journalists to sift through and select information for cogent analysis, when it comes to really getting to the bottom of an issue, it makes sense to go to the source and hear the people who are directly involved – unedited and without time constraints or word limits.

So how can positive social change be achieved through an abundance of disorganised chat on the internet? I run an organisation that trains marginalised groups and voluntary and public sector organisations to podcast, allowing them inexpensively to produce audio or video from their perspective. They can do and say what they like, as long as it is legal. Campaigners and charity workers do not have to wait for the media to take an interest in their issue – they can produce material themselves that will be of interest to their target audience, as opposed to mainstream media, which must appeal to a much wider audience.

However, most of my time has shifted towards working with marginalised groups because there is something that worries me about the digital revolution. When I surf through blogs, podcasts and content sharing sites such as YouTube and MySpace (examples of internet technology known as web 2.0), it is the same familiar demographic that is generating the content. For example, Al Gore’s citizen journalism channel, Current TV, launched recently in the UK and Ireland. My concern is that, powerful as some of the content is on Current TV and sites like it, the people producing it are, on the whole, privileged, confident and articulate members of society who already have a voice and are more accurately represented in newspapers and broadcast media to begin with.

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Singapore – Straits Times Decreasing Traffic

Found On Singapore Election
When The Straits Times started charging for access all those years ago it was the wrong move. Why pay to access the reporting of a mass media outlet that is ranked either 147th or 154th in the world depending on your ranking source. The paper is losing revenue as are so many other newspapers around the world. The 20 – 30 generation are going online to get news that matters to them. Not news filtered by a process of ‘self-censorship’ or by a regime that demands control over all that is written.

Simply no longer charging visitors to view your advertisements and state-controlled press releases is not going to turn the fortunes of the ST around over night. Trying to isolate yourself from the global market of media and cultural production by charging your readers and hoping that they show loyalty to you was mis-guided. But until the Straits Times journalists are able to compete on the global playing-field without the dead-weight of self-censorship and state control – all the technology in the world will not alter the image of the Straits Times as a state owned and controlled propaganda outlet.

FROM Tuesday, visitors to The Straits Times’ (ST) website will not have to pay to read the latest breaking news from Singapore and the world.

They can also post their views – in real time – on the reports they read.

One other major change: The site will drop its 12-year-old name, The Straits Times Interactive, or STI, and go with the cleaner ‘straitstimes.com’.

Since becoming a subscription site in 2005, it has been offering only a small buffet of material for free:

1. ST’s online forum letters;
2. Multimedia features, such as video news reports and podcasts;
3. A restricted selection of 20 reports from the print edition.

All other content, including breaking news and material picked up from the print edition of the newspaper itself, has been available only to subscribers in the past two years.

Explaining the move to open up more free-access content, ST editor Han Fook Kwang said: ‘There’s a great deal more we can do in the website to leverage on the award-winning talent in The Straits Times newsroom of writers, photographers, artists and designers. I think we’ve a good product and we want to make it available to more people in cyberspace, and to use the technology available on the web to make it an even better product.’
Here is the real reason ….

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Singapore Filtering Internet

The following report has been compiled by the Open Net Initiative. ONI is a collaborative partnership of four leading academic institutions: the Citizen Lab at the Munk Centre for International Studies, University of Toronto, Berkman Center for Internet & Society at Harvard Law School, the Advanced Network Research Group at the Cambridge Security Programme, University of Cambridge, and the Oxford Internet Institute, Oxford University. All these Universities will of course be ignored by those employed in the Singapore media or simply dismissed as a bunch of ang moh interferring in Singapore who have highly questionable methodologies that for some particular reason do not apply to the ‘unique; situation that Singapore is’. Unique – just like Azerbaijan, Bahrain, Burma/Myanmar, China, Ethiopia, India, Iran, Jordan, Libya, Morocco, Oman, Pakistan, Saudi Arabia, South Korea, Sudan, Syria, Tajikistan, Thailand, Tunisia, Turkmenistan, UAE, Uzbekistan, Vietnam and Yemen.

Rather than seeing it for what it is. A state that censors and filters the net.

Singapore

The government of the Republic of Singapore engages in minimal Internet filtering, blocking only a small set of pornographic Web sites as a symbol of disapproval of their contents. However, the state employs a combination of licensing controls and legal pressures to regulate Internet access and to limit the presence of objectionable content and conduct online.

Background
Singapore’s government uses restrictive laws, political ties to the judiciary, and ownership and intimidation of the media to suppress dissenting opinion and opposition to the ruling People’s Action Party (PAP). Provisions of the Internal Security Act (ISA), the Criminal Law (Temporary Provisions) Act (CLA), the Undesirable Publications Act (UPA), and other statutes prohibit the production and possession of “subversive” materials and permit the detention of suspected offenders without judicial review.1 Citizens, including Singapore Democratic Party (SDP) leader Chee Soon Juan, have been arrested for speaking publicly without a permit,2 and foreign activists from civil society organizations have been detained, interrogated, and deported.3 Government plaintiffs have been able to levy civil liability and heavy damages through defamation suits against independent and critical voices, including those of opposition politicians and of regional publications with domestic circulation.4 Moreover, virtually all domestic newspapers and television and radio stations are owned by corporations with economic ties to the government; hence they adhere closely to the PAP line when reporting on sensitive issues.5 Taken together, these economic and legal controls contribute to a climate of pervasive self-censorship of political commentary. These mechanisms of control and influence allow the Singapore government to cripple basic freedoms of expression and assembly under the guise of protecting public security and preserving order.

Internet in Singapore
In 2005, the number of Internet users in Singapore reached 2.42 million, or 67.2 percent of the population,6 giving the country one of the highest Internet penetration rates in the world. Home access is commonplace, with residential dialup and broadband subscriptions totaling more than 2.1 million.7 Over 70 percent of businesses use the Internet,8 and public access is widespread and expanding. In December 2006, a three-year national wireless service was launched, providing laptop users with free Wi-Fi Internet access in high-traffic areas across the island.9 Terminals in cybercafés and libraries supply the public with additional connectivity.

Three main Internet Access Service Providers (IASPs)—SingNet, StarHub, and Pacific Internet—serve as the “gateways” to the Web, providing access to Internet service resellers (ISRs) for sale to the public.10 Though all three IASPs are public corporations, Temasek Holdings (the government’s holding company) remains the majority shareholder in SingNet and StarHub.11

Legal and regulatory frameworks
Singapore’s Media Development Authority (MDA) claims to have instituted a “light-touch” regulatory framework for the Internet, promoting responsible use while giving industry players “maximum flexibility.”12 In addition to promoting self-regulation and public education, the MDA maintains license and registration requirements that subject Internet content and service providers to penalties for noncompliance with restrictions on prohibited material. The MDA is charged with ensuring that “nothing is included in the content of any media service which is against public interest or order, or national harmony, or which offends good taste or decency.”13 The core of this framework is a class license scheme stipulated by national statute (the Broadcasting Act)14 and by industry policies and regulations issued by the MDA.

Under the class license scheme, all Internet service providers (ISPs) and those Internet content providers (ICPs) determined to be political parties or persons “engaged in the propagation, promotion or discussion of political or religious issues relating to Singapore” must register with the MDA.15 As licensees, ISPs and ICPs are also bound by the MDA’s Internet Code of Practice. The Code defines “prohibited material” broadly, specifying only a few standards for sexual, violent, and intolerant content.16 Where filtering is not mandated at the ISP level, the Code requires that ICPs deny access to material if so directed by the MDA. Licensees that fail to comply with the Code may face sanctions, including fines or license suspensions or terminations, as authorized under the Broadcasting Act. In 2005, one Web site titled “Meet Gay Singapore Friends” was reportedly fined USD5,000 by the MDA for being in violation of the Code.17

Threats of civil and criminal liability under other laws further deter Internet users from posting comments or content relating to sensitive issues. In May 2005 the state-funded agency A*STAR accused Jiahao Chen, a Singaporean doctoral student in the United States, of posting “untrue and serious accusations against A*STAR, its officers and other parties,” and threatened Chen with “legal consequences unless the objectionable statements were removed and an acceptable apology published.”18 Chen complied with A*STAR’s demands and replaced the posts with an apology, thereby avoiding a potential defamation suit.19 The high-profile case prompted caution20 in the Singapore blogosphere and discussion21 on how to avoid suit under the nation’s defamation laws.22

In October 2005 two men were jailed under the Sedition Act23 for the first time in nearly forty years. One received a one-month sentence and the other a nominal one-day sentence and USD5,000 fine for posting racist remarks denigrating Muslims and Malays.24 In January 2006, a twenty-one-year-old was also charged with violating the Sedition Act after he posted four cartoons of Jesus on his blog. The charges were eventually dropped, but not before Singaporean authorities had confiscated the individual’s computer and removed the cartoons from his blog.25

In November 2006 SDP activist Yap Keng Ho was sentenced to ten days in jail after he refused to pay a fine for speaking at an illegal SDP rally, held in April 2006. Yap had posted a video of the speech on his blog and was ordered to remove it by a judge.26

The above incidents appeared to presage further repressive legislation and policies against Singaporean Internet users. In 2007 the Ministry of Home Affairs (MHA) is expected to table before parliament a slate of amendments to the Penal Code. The proposed amendments expand the scope of nineteen offenses to cover acts perpetrated via electronic media, including “uttering words with deliberate intent to wound the religious feelings of any person” (section 298); defamation (section 499); and making “statements conducing to public mischief” (section 505).27 Section 298 is being modified further to cover “the wounding of racial feelings,” so that offenders may be prosecuted under the Sedition Act or the Penal Code.28 The MHA amendments also introduce nineteen new offenses, including abetting “an offense which is committed in Singapore, even if any or all of the acts of abetment were done outside Singapore,” as via Internet or mobile phone (section 108B).29

ONI testing results
ONI conducted testing on Singapore’s two major IASPs, SingNet and StarHub, and on a third ISP, SysTech. A common perception of the Singaporean Internet community points to the existence of a list of 100 banned Web sites purportedly maintained by the Media Development Authority (MDA). ONI found that only seven Web sites tested, all relating to pornography, were blocked, including sex.com, playboy.com, and penthouse.com. The blocking of only these high-profile sites suggests that filtering is indeed mandated for symbolic, rather than preventative, purposes. Moreover, the seven sites blocked on SingNet and StarHub were all accessible on SysTech.

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Singapore’s media ranked 154th

medium_fh2007.jpg

In advance of World Press Freedom Day, on May 3rd, Freedom House has released several critical tools to highlight data from its annual survey of global press freedom, and to help explain the newest findings in their historical context. The current edition of the survey, Freedom of the Press 2007, points to improvements in several countries such as Italy, Nepal, Colombia, and Haiti; however, it shows mixed trends in Africa, as well as a continuation of a longer-term pattern of decline in press freedom in Asia, Latin America, and the former Soviet Union.

Freedom House
04 May 07
http://freedomhouse.org/template.cfm?page=362

Singapore
Status: Not Free
Legal Environment: 24
Political Environment: 24
Economic Environment: 21
Total Score: 69

Media freedom in Singapore is constrained to such a degree that the vast majority of journalists practice self-censorship rather than risk being charged with defamation or breaking the country’s criminal laws on permissible speech.

The Singapore constitution guarantees the right to freedom of speech and expression in Article 14, but it also permits restrictions on these rights. Media freedom in Singapore is constrained by the Newspapers and Printing Presses Act, the Defamation Act, and the Internal Security Act, all of which allow authorities to restrict the circulation of news deemed to incite violence, arouse racial or religious tensions, interfere in domestic politics, or threaten public order, national interest or national security.

The government proposed a series of amendments to the Penal Code in 2006 that would cover offenses committed via electronic media. The draft amendments would not only provide jail terms or fines for defamation, “statements that would cause public mischief,” and the “wounding” of racial or religious feeling, they would also make it a crime for anyone outside the country to abet an offense committed inside the country, thereby allowing the authorities to prosecute internet users living abroad. Singaporean students studying overseas are the presumed targets of this amendment.

The Singapore government is quick to sue critics under harsh criminal defamation laws. In May 2006, for example, Prime Minister Lee Hsien Loong and his father, First Minister Kee Kuan Yew, filed criminal charges against the publishers of opposition newspaper The New Democrat, which is published several times a year by a committee of the Singapore Democratic Party.

The lawsuit started with an unsigned story that described as “secretive and non-accountable” the ruling party’s handling of a corruption scandal at the National Kidney Foundation.

Foreign media in Singapore are also subject to restrictive laws. In August, after the Far Eastern Economic Review published an interview with opposition party leader Chee Soon Juan, FEER and four other foreign publications were advised that they needed to post bonds and appoint legal representatives in order to continue to operate in Singapore. When FEER did not comply, its circulation permit was revoked, thereby effectively banning the publication. Meanwhile, on September 14, the Prime Minister and his father filed defamation suits against FEER over the article.

Nearly all print and broadcast media outlets, internet service providers, and cable television services are either owned or controlled by the state, or by companies with close ties to the ruling party. Annual licensing requirements for all media outlets, including political and religious web sites, have been used to inhibit criticism of the government.

Approximately two thirds of the population had access to the internet in 2006. Nonetheless, the government restricts internet access and Singapore has zero-tolerance for bloggers who challenge the government in any way. Prior to the May 6 Parliamentary elections, the Communications and Arts Minister warned bloggers and website managers that they do not have the right to back a particular candidate’s program or to express opinions on political issues. These same rules were applied to other new media, including podcasting and videocasting.

On April 26, the opposition Singapore Democratic Party was ordered to withdraw a podcast from its website. In June, popular blogger Lee Kin Mun (aka “Mr Brown”) was informed by state-owned Today newspaper that his weekly column, which had satirized the high cost of living, would be suspended. On November 6, a judge ordered Yap Keng Ho, a member of the opposition, to remove from his blog a video of himself speaking in public during the general elections.

Source
150
Cote d’Ivoire 68 NF
Malaysia 68 NF
Maldives 68 NF
United Arab Emirates 68 NF
154
Afghanistan 69 NF
Djibouti 69 NF
Gabon 69 NF
Singapore 69 NF
158 Iraq 70 NF
159 Bahrain 71 NF
Oman 71 NF
161 Chad 74 NF
Togo 74 NF
Venezuela 74 NF

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Growing Number of Asian Blogs Offers Alternatives to Mainstream Media

I have posted this article here as it is a position and an argument that is very close to my own.

And the MrBrown affair gets yet another mention.

By Claudia Blume
Hong Kong
25 April 2007

Blume report – Download 717k
Listen to Blume report

Asia’s blogging community is growing rapidly, as more people get access to the Internet. In countries with a controlled media environment, blogs promote free speech and offer alternative sources of news and information. But some governments in the region try to limit access to the new media. Claudia Blume reports from VOA’s Asia News Center in Hong Kong.

Millions of people in Asia have taken to blogging in recent years, creating personal Web sites that often take the form of an online diary. The word blog derives from Web log. China alone is estimated to have up to 30 million bloggers.

As elsewhere in the world, the region’s collection of blogs on the Internet is diverse and amorphous. But in Asia, a survey by the U.S. software company Microsoft estimates that nearly half of those who are online have a blog, compared to just eight percent of U.S. Internet users.

Most people create blogs to share their lives and interests with friends, family and a few strangers. Many use text and photos, but also sound and video. Others blog to exchange information, create networks or express opinions about a wide range of issues.

In this music video, posted on the popular video-sharing Web site YouTube, two young Malaysians say an ironic ‘thank you’ to Indonesia for being responsible for last year’s haze, the pollution that spread from Indonesian forest fires. The bloggers’ criticism is an opinion that their governments would not express.

For some people, blogging has become a powerful tool for freedom of expression. Rebecca MacKinnon, an expert on online media at the University of Hong Kong, says a small percentage of people in the region create blogs to tell a wider audience what the mainstream media are not reporting.

“Some of these people who are creating media such as Jeff Ooi in Malaysia, a number of bloggers in China, basically there are people one could cite in any given country around the region, who are developing rather large audiences because they are saying something fresh or more direct than [what] people are getting from their traditional media sources,” said MacKinnon.

News of the famous nail house in the Chinese city of Chongqing, where a couple tried to block the destruction of their home earlier this year, was first spread on blogs. When mainstream media were told to remain silent on the case, a Chinese blogger who calls himself Zola traveled to Chongqing and continued to report about it.

Isaac Mao, a well-known Shanghai-based blogger and software architect, says Zola’s action was a milestone for Chinese bloggers.

“So it means once the traditional mainstream media, if they fail to work, grassroots media can take over the niche or they can take another role – to report some social events from different angles,” said Mao.

In countries with a highly restricted and regulated media environment, such as China, Vietnam, Burma and Singapore, blogs can provide different, independent information and viewpoints. While the quality and trustworthiness of blogs varies greatly, they are becoming popular sources of information in places where the mainstream media lacks credibility.

“People may now welcome this diversity of news but that’s precisely because I think one thing to remember is a lot of people are already very skeptical of mainstream media in their own countries, precisely because they are aware that most mainstream media in their countries are [one] either owned by the state or they are highly restricted and therefore are not really free to provide independent and diverse news,” said Roby Alampay, the executive director of the Southeast Asian Press Alliance.

Alampay says some blogs are created by professional journalists who post online what they are not allowed to publish in their day-jobs. Last year, for example, a Singaporean journalist whose column in a government-controlled newspaper was suspended after he criticized high living costs in the city-state was able to post the controversial story on his blog.

A number of Asian governments view bloggers as a threat. The Malaysian government has announced plans to set up a unit to monitor and counter what it calls lies and slander being spread on the Internet. Roby Alampay says governments across the region try to block, filter and monitor cyberspace.

“Censorship is becoming an issue all over Southeast Asia and I think it’s safe to assume that most countries exercise some form of blocking and censorship or harassment of websites,” Alampay added.

In Thailand, the military government recently blocked access to YouTube when an offending video clip of the Thai king appeared on the video-sharing Web site. It also suspended a popular political online chat room in April. In Malaysia, the government-linked New Straits Times newspaper recently filed defamation suits against two well-known bloggers.

Vietnam and China are particularly notorious for censoring the Internet. MacKinnon says that’s why it would be impossible for anyone to create an opposition press through blogs there.

“You are not going to see a pro-democracy, anti-communist party-press emerging through the Chinese blogosphere. The Chinese government is able to prevent that from happening,” said MacKinnon.

She said it would be over-simplistic to assume that the existence of blogs will suddenly bring about a democratic revolution in countries such as China.

Isaac Mao, for example, describes the cat-and-mouse game involved when bloggers want to outwit technical blocks imposed by government censors.

But MacKinnon says blogs offer the potential to open up the media in ways not possible before the spread of Internet access.

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Singapore: Zahari’s 17 Years

The complete video that has been banned in Singapore is now available here to view.

And this time I know who uploaded it.

The story has also been covered by More4 News in the UK.
More4 News: Singapore bans “Zahari’s 17 Years”

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Government plans to force bloggers to register

Reporters Without Borders alerted me to the ongoing issue north of Singapore’s borders. In an article published elsewhere I have even read that the government of Malaysia feels that getting Malaysian bloggers to register is legitimate because Singapore makes bloggers register.

He said: “We might follow some other countries who register bloggers as well. That’s what Singapore is doing as well. It’s much better if we can have a list of active bloggers … We want to know who are the bloggers.” TechWack

Now either he has been in touch with the Singapore authorities and has access to information that we are not yet privy to or he is simply telling a lie. As far as I am aware no blogger in Singapore has been asked to register with the government. Yes the law exists to make those engaged in political activity register during the elections but I am not aware of anyone being asked to do so. Well not since sintercom a number of years ago.

MALAYSIA

Government plans to force bloggers to register

Reporters Without Borders voiced concern today about a statement by the deputy minister of energy, water and communications, Datuk Shaziman Abu Mansor, on 4 April that, in order to prevent the spread of “negative or malicious content,” bloggers will soon have to register with the government.

While claiming they do not intend to censor bloggers, they have warned that bloggers are not above the law when they “disturb peace and harmony” in Malaysia.

“This measure could jeopardise online free expression,” Reporters Without Borders said. “It could push many bloggers to opt for anonymity or censor themselves out of fear of reprisals. The deputy minister’s statement once again demonstrates the government’s desire to exercise improper control over the online flow of information inside Malaysia. The obligatory registering of blogs is a measure that so far has only been adopted by countries such as China that violate Internet users’ rights.”

The political parties and the government control most of the media in Malaysia. The most popular blogs serve as a counter-weight, offering political comment that is often critical of the government. Science and technology minister Kong Cho Ha said on 4 December that he wanted to “create strict laws to control abuses on the Internet” and to dissuade “bloggers from advocating disorder and chaos in society.”

On 19 January, Reporters Without Borders took up the cause of two Malaysian bloggers who are the target of libel suits by members of the staff of the New Straits Times, a Malaysian newspaper. Jeff Ooi, who writes one of the country’s most popular blogs, Screenshots (http://www.jeffooi.com), has been sued for refusing to take down 13 posts which the newspaper’s staffers consider to be defamatory.

Ahiruddin Attan, who produces a blog called Rockybru (http://www.rockybru.blogspot.com/), says he is being sued over a post in which he accused some of the newspaper’s journalists of being agents of the Singaporean government.

Read our weekly “blog review” and create your blog with Reporters without borders : www.rsfblog.org

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