Chee Hong Tat, Minister of State at the Ministry of Communications and Information, visited Mediacorp last weekend to thank the staff for working on the first day of the Chinese New Year and the good work carried out in the past year.

“I think it’s critical for us to continue to have a credible national broadcaster that Singaporeans can turn to as a credible and reliable source of news, and also to understand what’s happening around them both locally and (in) the region,”

“I think Mediacorp has done well in bringing good quality news and entertainment programmes to Singaporeans and now with news and entertainment shifting online, we have to continue to work hard to build up capabilities, on our online digital capabilities, so that we’re able to continue to reach out to Singaporeans through this platform,”

His comments, raised online eyebrows who immediately pointed to him that Singapore’s only two newspaper companies, Mediacorp and Singapore Press Holdings, were collectively ranked 154th in press credibility and accuracy in 2016 by Reporters Without Borders (RWB).

*The World Press Freedom Index compiled and published by RWB, reflects the intensity of the attacks on journalistic freedom and independence by governments, ideologies and private-sector interests during the past year. Seen as a benchmark throughout the world, the Index ranks 180 countries according to the freedom allowed journalists. It also includes indicators of the level of media freedom violations in each region.

RWB stats certainly made Chee Hong Tat look like a foolish politician who had little clue what is going on.

Is our freedom of press really that bad? Are we worse than a communist state?

Did we really elect a fool into parliament to make these comments?

Two points:

First by Minister for law K Shanmugam

The press can criticise us, our policies. We do not seek to proscribe that. But we demand the right of response, to be published in the journal that published the original article. We do not accept that they can decide whether to publish our response. That irks the press no end.

If the press crosses the line from attacking our policies and make allegations of fact against someone – that that person is corrupt or if they make some other personal factual attack is made, then there will be a libel suit – and the factual accusation must be proven. If the allegation is proven, the Plaintiff will lose the case and pay legal costs. Otherwise, the accuser pays damages and legal costs.

Likewise in the political arena. We have no problems with tough debate, criticism of policies. But we believe that such debate should avoid untrue and scurrilous personal attacks. Personal reputation is no less valuable than personal property. Public discourse does not have to descend into the gutter.

If untrue statements are made that a person is corrupt or that he lied, or that he tried to help my family or friends, there will be a suit. Let the accuser prove it. But if it is said that someone is stupid or that policies make no sense and the policies are attacked vigorously, then you can’t sue.

There is public prerogative, to comment on policies. In response, it will be sensible to defend the policies.

Secondly we question the validity of the RWB rankings in the first place.

The truth is that RSF’s Press Freedom Index is methodologically and conceptually flawed – They do not use the same benchmark across countries. – Cherian George (source)

RSF ignores a fundamental conceptual problem and does not declare the relative weights of different indicators in its index.

They are like deciding the Miss World beauty pageant by comparing the scores given by the judges in each national competition. In such a system, if Miss Singapore judges gave the winner very high marks – perhaps because they were more easily impressed than, say, the Miss Venezuela competition judges. Miss Singapore could be Miss World faster than Ris Low could say “boomz”

When compiling an index, which is an aggregation of different indicators, the tricky part is what weights to attach to each separate indicator. Nobody has come up with a clear way to compare the different types of violation that are involved in the denial of press freedom.

But, if you read into the results, Singapore’s ranking must mean that RSF considers the Republic’s lack of alternative media and lawsuits against foreign media to be more serious than, say, torture and kidnapping of media workers and blocking of political websites (not practised here, but common in some countries that RSF places higher than Singapore in its rankings).

News will always be biased. The recent presidential elections in America have shown how fake news are detrimental to public opinion and divisive to society.

What Chee Hong Tat should have said is that it’s critical for us to continue to have a credible national broadcaster that Singaporeans can turn to as a credible and reliable source of news, but it is also equally critical to source your information widely and compare them with actual accounts on the ground so that you have a good overall picture of news (local and overseas).