Freedom of Expression in Singapore vs. Sri Lanka

Freedom of Speech, Not Freedom From Consequences, an article about the recent controversy on Singapore’s reaction to US Citizen and former Singaporan lawyer Gopolan Nair who was arrested, detained and released on bail for “taunting a Singaporan judge” raises some interesting questions about the freedom of expression.

As the article notes, Committee to Protect Journalists Asia Programme Coordinator Bob Dietz was widely quoted as saying that “[t]his case illustrates the Singapore government’s ongoing commitment to silencing opposition voices both in print and online.” It’s also an interesting mirror to the debate that’s gripped Sri Lanka of late on the limits of the freedom of expression and whether some issues, persons and institutions are just off limits from vigorous journalistic and public scrutiny and debate.

Singapore’s media freedom has for a long time been in question. There is fact little of it. The facade of a progressive, westernised society hides the reality of media cocooned in a straight-jacket of repressive legislation and government control. As an in-depth report on Singapore’s media by Article 19 avers,

Internet sites that discussed politics and were based in Singapore were compelled to register with the regulatory authorities as early as 1998. In 2001, legislation was hurriedly enacted to proscribe the use of the Internet and mobile phone SMS facilities during election periods. Additionally, specialist crime divisions were set up, laws were passed to monitor the Internet, and technology was harnessed to conduct better surveillance. New laws were also introduced in 2003 to give local authorities sweeping powers to take pre-emptive action against so-called “cyber terrorists”.  

Amongst a number of other pressing concerns about Internet / web surveillence in this report, Article 19 notes that,

An amendment to Section 15A of the Computer Misuse Act was passed by parliament in November 2003 to authorise pre-emptive scanning of electronic networks, to detect possible threats and a person’s arrest before an offence is committed. Also, any person or organisation can be ordered to take measures to prevent computer attacks, as these could jeopardize the city-State’s defence, essential services or foreign relations.

Like with any other authoritarian regime (and make no mistake, Singapore is one) the real effectiveness of all this Big Brother behaviour is suspect. Not that any citizen is allowed to question it. As a recent Newsweek article on how Singapore’s top terrorist basically jumped out of an unguarded window from jail and waltzed into freedom notes,

“Singapore does an excellent job mobilizing its resources and directing them at recognized problems. But there are few external or independent checks on the system…”
(Gone in 11 Minutes Flat)

There’s however a remarkable parallel between the understanding of and approach to “patriotism” by some Singaporean journalists in the Article 19 report and the responses that recent articles on media freedom in Sri Lanka have generated. Section 11.3 (pgs 74 – 74) on the self-perception of governmental control of media by (some) Singaporean journalists is worth reading in full, but this paragraph stands out in particular,

Furthermore, local journalists argue that they report on political content the way they do out of patriotism. This then makes criticism of policies of the PAP government and its leaders in Singapore anti-Singapore and pro-Western. There is a presumption among some local journalists that the West represents Singapore in a negative way.

Compare this to the responses generated to the articles I’ve recently published on Groundviews (see A malicious “patriotism” and its impact on media and journalists in particular and also the responses to War and Press Freedom and Sri Lankan journalists: An extinct and unprotected species) and one finds quite a remarkable parallel between the two countries.

Significant media repression, as it were, goes unnoticed and what is more, is normalised by journalists themselves. In Sri Lanka, efforts to condemn censorship (worse in Sri Lanka today than it is in Singapore) is seen, especially now, as unpatriotic and efforts driven by foreign / Western / NGO / dollar / kroner / terrorist / LTTE interests, or a heady combination of these.

There is on the other hand the necessary debate on the point that the enjoyment of vital freedoms is not without conjoined political and social responsibility. As one blogger notes,

Like I said, go ahead and make your voice heard, but don’t assume that there’s some shiny blogger badge that you can waive, like a diplomatic immunity card. Especially when you happen to be in a nation that’s already proven to value its stability over your free speech. And, if you publicly taunt said nation, what the heck do you expect?

Mashable.com’s article ends in a similar vein, noting that “Freedom of speech is a right in most civilized countries; by that same token, though, its use requires a measure of responsibility.”

This merits further thought, since it begs the question as to who sets the boundaries for the freedom of expression and whether it can really be said to exist in Sri Lanka today where the regime has been quite successful is stifling dissent in a manner not too different to that of the LTTE. The issue is the same as that which raged in Europe after the publication of cartoons perceived to be anti-Islamic. The case of Charlie Hebdo in France and the ruling of the French courts in the matter of its republication of the controversial cartoons suggests that even when sections of polity and disagree with what one says, the rule of law ensures that the right to say it is upheld.

The problem today, as evinced in the case of the blogger in Singapore and more so in Sri Lanka is what happens to critical voices after they are published. Mashable.com’s article suggests that one cannot expect to be popular after questioning the authoritarianism of the Singaporean regime. Fine. But I wonder if repressive laws that criminalise free expression can be used by a repressive regime to clamp down on democratic dissent? A legal system that isn’t just is as bad as the arbitrary diktat of authoritarian rule. 

Radio Télévision Libre des Mille Collines (RTLM) in pre-genocide Rwanda is one of the most quoted cases of media used to flame hatred and violence, with chilling consequences. Neither Singapore nor Sri Lanka are even close to that level of incredible brutality. Yet, looking at Sri Lanka today and what I know of the very real fear and anxiety of some independent journalists (many times greater than what is and can be published in the media itself) its undeniable that the vicious and malevolent mode of expression by sections of the government (e.g. repeatedly calling UN Under Secretary General and head of the UN Office of the Coordination of Humanitarian Affairs a terrorist) and the Ministry of Defence in particular incites hatred against critical voices.

While the vigorous contestation of what journalists (and bloggers) can or cannot say can and should take place in the public domain through media and other means such as the due process of law, what’s increasingly evident is that the Rajapakse regime has found a far more effective way to silence dissent through the use of outright terror. As I’ve noted earlier, the resulting fear psychosis and self-censorship is really far more effective than openly banning or blocking websites that promote inconvenient truths and far more difficult to address and highlight. 

To concur with Philippe Val, Editor and Director of Charlie Hebdo, “If we no longer have the right to ridicule those who inflict terror on us, that’s a problem”.

Trackbacks/Pingbacks

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