02 January 2000

Blogs & MSM

rST July 22, 2006
Did the Govt really shut down a bak chor mee stall?

If it's Internet chatter, it's okay. But because it was published in a mainstream newspaper, it's not. So said Minister Lee Boon Yang, explaining the Government's stiff response to a newspaper column by blogger mr brown. Li Xueying sits in as MP Penny Low, blogger Bernard Leong and polytechnic lecturer Gan Su-Lin come together for a round-table discussion to discuss the role of the different media

The mr brown episode: its background

THERE was a jibe about revised roti prata prices; a far-out suggestion of cashcard chips embedded in foreheads, lampooning the Government's infocomm masterplan; and a personal observation about means testing for special schools.

To the casual reader, the mr brown column published in Today newspaper three weeks ago was one laced with humorous sarcasm.

But the Government saw beyond the jokey tone and discerned something more insidious - a piece of 'diatribe' that is 'calculated to encourage cynicism and

The robust response from the Ministry of Information, Communications and the Arts (Mica) to the column, in turn, spawned a train of reactions.

The newspaper dropped mr brown's weekly column. Internet forums buzzed. Fellow bloggers wrote treatises on the subject.

In a way, the whole episode has come full circle.

Mr Lee Kin Mun, 36, first came to public attention as mr brown the blogger. He was offered a writing stint in the Today newspaper because of his online popularity.

Now, with the newspaper suspending the column, he returns to writing just for blogosphere.

In the process, the episode has precipitated a debate on Internet content, the relationship between mainstream and Internet media and the relationship between the Government and both forms of media.

This is not the first run-in between netizens and the Government. When Sintercom was asked to register as a political website in 2001, founder Tan Chong Kee shut it down. Last year, three bloggers were prosecuted for racist comments.

But the mr brown episode is a pathbreaker, in that it throws into relief the Government's dual approach to online and mainstream media. This led to discussions on the evolving roles of both types of media.

Blogger Soon Sze Meng, a student, cited the Mica letter which stated: 'It is not the role of journalists or newspapers in Singapore to champion issues, or campaign for or against the Government.'

Mr Soon questions if the Government has the authority to lay down the law on what newspapers can and cannot do. 'Has the role of a journalist or the newspaper been legislated by Parliament? If so, which law(s) supported this statement within the reply issued?'

If an article is favourable to the ruling PAP, does that mean that the reporter is 'a partisan player', asks blogger Molly Meek.

The Government's attempt to distinguish between content acceptable in mainstream and alternative media also drew attention.

Can such a distinction be made so clearly? Is it a false divide?

The mainstream media risks alienating readers and losing credibility if they do not reflect the buzz on the Internet, say some.

As Singabloodypore's soci puts it, 'to an older demographic, the Internet may be 'less real' but the young who will inherit Singapore are moving online'.

Last Sunday, MP Penny Low was accosted by an indignant 64-year-old woman.

'I'm a party supporter but I've been hearing things,' the woman said in Mandarin to the People's Action Party politician.

'Before the elections, the Government gave a number of goodies and therefore people voted for the PAP. But after the elections, the PAP got so tough they even shut down a bak chor mee stall!'

Startled, Ms Low asked for more details.

According to the elderly woman, the bak chor mee (minced meat noodles in Hokkien) seller wanted to sell more than just minced meat noodles at his stall, and had taken to adding two fishballs to each bowl of noodles he dished out.

The Government, she went on to say, then shut down the stall saying that 'you either sell bak chor mee or you sell fishball noodles, but not a combination. If you want to sell fishball noodles, then you need to put six fishballs, not two'.

Asked where she heard this from, the woman replied confidently: 'Gatherings.'

Ms Low recounts the story to make the point that there's a segment of the Singapore population who are unable to discern rumour from truth, and who mistake satire for fact.

The bak chor mee and fishball noodle story was one that clearly poked fun at the Government's recent attempt to draw a line between mainstream and online media, by telling mainstream media editors that what was acceptable online, was not necessarily acceptable in the mainstream media.

But a satirical story had come to be believed as fact.

This showed that while Singaporeans are free to express their opinions, says Ms Low, they must also be responsible and 'be prepared that if we say something that is hearsay, then the party which is aggrieved reserves the right to pursue the issue'.

The story came up during a round-table discussion on media issues organised by Insight this week.

The others who took part were polytechnic lecturer Gan Su-Lin and blogger Bernard Leong.

They were asked their views on the 'mr brown' affair, when the Government ticked off the blogger for his column in the newspaper Today.

In his satirical column, Mr Lee Kin Mun, 36, commented that increases in taxi fare and electricity tariffs had come after the polls and at a time when a government survey showed a widening income gap.

Today later suspended the column, after the Ministry of Information, Communication and the Arts (Mica) issued a strong rebuttal.

Ms K. Bhavani, press secretary to Mica Minister Lee Boon Yang, had written:
'If a columnist presents himself as a non-political observer while exploiting his access to the mass media to undermine the Government's standing, then he's no longer a constructive critic but a partisan player in politics.'

Dr Lee later added that if the column were just part of the 'Internet chatter', it would have been ignored.

But the Government had to respond as it appeared in a mainstream newspaper, he said, adding that a mainstream newspaper had to be objective, accurate and responsible.

Should different standards apply to the mainstream and Internet media?

Panellists debated the issue.

Double standards

FOR now, the Government has drawn a clear line in saying that what is acceptable in the footloose and fancy-free cyberspace is not okay in the traditional media - newspapers and television.

It is clear that the Government holds both to different standards, and allows more leeway online.

But are such 'double standards' tenable in the long run?

Dr Gan, for one, thinks online content should be held to the same high standards as mainstream media.

'At the risk of sounding like a pro-government flak, but given the pervasive, insidious reach of the Internet, I think that there is greater care that needs to be taken.'

Her experience as a lecturer has shown her that Singapore is still 'a very immature, developing society dealing with an immature blogosphere'.

Students are IT-savvy - but undiscerning in sifting out the truth from hearsay, she says.

'I believe in equity and fairness. I think what works for the gander works for the goose. If you want to disseminate information, you've got to be responsible about it.'

But she also adds that rather than censorship, it is 'media literacy' which is important, that is, educating people to become more discerning readers and

But as the panellists note, with media convergence being the buzzword of the day, and mainstream media companies boosting their online presence, the distinction between mainstream and online media is increasingly blurred.

The Straits Times, for instance, has a website and recently launched a new
interactive portal called Stomp that includes celebrity bloggers.

Should such bloggers be subjected to the rules of the online world, or that
of the offline mainstream media world?

Dr Leong, a research scientist and keen blogger, has this answer: Liberate the mainstream media and allow them the same degree of latitude given to online

One thing he is resolutely against, is subjecting online media to the controls imposed on the mainstream media.

He says: 'If we want to encourage creativity and growth in Singapore, having laws to tighten control over online media will do the exact opposite.

'It will be akin to suicide. It's a matter of space, because once you tighten this space that people have, you will be restricting their freedom to express what they truly want to say.'
Transition period

WHILE Dr Gan wants online media to be subjected to the same standards as mainstream media, and Dr Leong wants both to enjoy the same freedom, Ms Low the MP adopts a stance somewhere in between.

She notes that cyber media content began as something on the fringe.

In contrast, 'the mainstream media, for a long time, has always been seen as an authority of information'.

This echoes Dr Lee's remarks that the mainstream media 'must adopt this model that they are a part of the nation-building effort, rather than go out and purvey views that will mislead people, confuse people, which will undermine our
national strategy'.

Cyber media, on the other hand, was 'never meant to replace or even rival the mainstream media when it first started', Ms Low adds.

She agrees with those who argue that the Internet has the potential to be 'self-regulating' in the sense that wrong or extreme content will get shouted down by others.

But until that ideal self-regulating world comes about, Ms Low believes that rules, and 'certain beacons and signposts' help ensure that there is a 'smoother transition'.

But she cautions against taking too rigid an approach.

She says: 'We do need to give some space for people to mature, to comment, and to banter. And I think that space is important in maturing a society's thinking.'

The regulators themselves, she reckons, are feeling their way forward.

Reaction to Mica's response

HENCE she thinks Mica's response to the mr brown column was a 'little bit too robust'.

'While there is a need to clarify - and I think any government that is credible, that is responsible will need to make it clear to the population what is or is not the case - I think the language itself can be a little less emotive, and more communicative and persuasive,' says the PAP MP.

'I think the Government is also learning.'

She hastens to add that she agrees with the substance of the reply, adding: 'The thing that really sells, that really gets off as a viral thought is always half-truths. And there were a lot of it within the column.'

Changing roles

THE Internet may have started as niche and fringe, but at what point can it be considered 'mainstream' media?

Like Ms Low, Dr Leong points out that the blogosphere is evolving.

For one, there is greater aggregation of content.

For another, there's a movement to raise cyber-etiquette standards. For instance, the blog Dr Leong contributes to, Singapore Angle, is made up of a number of professionals dedicated to 'civil discourse'.

Far from purveying untruths, there are now blogs written by specialists such as a lawyer, known only as Mr Wang, who uses his legal knowledge to probe government policies, notes Dr Leong.

Over time, the distinction now made between traditional and online media will blur, as online media increases its reach and influence to become more mainstream.

In the meantime, having a stricter set of rules for traditional media hampers its ability to attract younger readers or viewers, he thinks.

This is why he would prefer to see in the mainstream media, the same free-for-all as in cyberspace.

Ms Low, too, believes that the role of the media is evolving.

Rather than have the Government lay down the law on what the role of each media should be, she thinks the issue should be raised for public discussion, and a social consensus forged.

'Some of these issues can be better debated in the public space and the result put as feedback and consideration for both the Government and the media players to decide,' she says.

Ms Low, who used to write a blog, believes in giving more space for self-expression.

She says: 'If we believe this century to be the century of people power vis-a-vis military power in the 70s and maybe economic power more recently, then I think that space for people to express themselves has to be a little bit wider.'

No comments: