It seems that covering an election campaign can lead to arrest in Singapore. This, at least, is the bizarre experience of New Naratif managing director Thum Ping Tjin. The police summoned and questioned him for four and a half hours on the morning of 21 September and then searched his home, seizing his mobile phone and laptop.
The police acted in response to a complaint by the Singapore Elections Department (SED), a direct offshoot of the prime minister’s office, over five articles about the 10 July general elections that were posted on Facebook between 26 April and 6 July and were “boosted” financially by New Naratif to push them higher in subscriber news feeds.
The SED got the five posts taken down on the grounds that they were “paid advertisements” and therefore amounted to “illegal conduct of election activity” that violated the Parliamentary Election Act, although the act contains no precise definition of what constitutes “election activity.”
New Naratif recognizes “boosting” a total of 13 posts during the run-up to the elections, but points out that that AsiaOne, a media outlet that is majority-owned by a government-controlled press group, “boosted” no fewer that 240 posts during the official campaign period alone (from 30 June to 10 July), of which at least 150 were about the elections and the ruling party. None of these sponsored posts were regarded by the authorities as “illegal election activity.”
“We call on Prime Minister Lee Hsien Loong’s office to immediately drop the pathetic charges it has brought against New Naratif,” said Daniel Bastard, the head of RSF’s Asia-Pacific desk. “What credibility can his government claim if it was the result of elections in which the independent media were carefully prevented from doing their work. New Naratif’s only crime was providing Singapore’s citizens with independently-reported information instead of government propaganda.”
Coloured black on the map
As a result of a combination of ownership concentration and political alignment, all of Singapore’s mainstream media content themselves with repeating the government’s messages. The few bloggers or news sites such as New Naratif that try to provide reliable reporting are subjected to harassment and intimidation, often initiated by the prime minister himself.
An army of lawyers was deployed in September 2019 against Terry Xu, the editor of the independent news website The Online Citizen, over an article that supposedly caused “loss and damage” to the prime minister.
And the blogger Leong Sze Hian continues to face the possibility of a two-year prison sentence on a criminal defamation charge simply for sharing an article from the Malaysian website TheCoverage.my on Facebook in November 2018.
After falling seven places in the space of a year, the Singaporean city-state is ranked 158th out of 180 countries in RSF's 2020 World Press Freedom Index and is now one of those that are coloured black on the RSF press freedom map because the situation is classified as “very bad.”