07 August 2006

Singapore Cracks Down on Foreign Media

The Straits Times website has been down all morning. How annoying. I guess I have no choice but to turn to alternative media (I mean blogs) for news about Singapore. Roy Greenslade, a blogger from the UK, offers a quick bite:

Singapore cracks down on foreign media

The Far Eastern Economic Review has become the latest foreign publication to be targeted by the Singapore authorities. It has been given until 11 September to comply with an Act which demands that it must have a legal representative in the country and pay a deposit of £67,500. Four other publications - the International Herald Tribune, the Financial Times, Time and Newsweek - have also been ordered to do the same when their licences come up for renewal.

A Singapore government spokesman says its position is that "it is a privilege, and not a right, for foreign newspapers to circulate in Singapore". Reporters Without Borders, the press watchdog, says that the rules are really a form of censorship. Singapore is ranked 140th out of 167 countries in RWB's 2005 worldwide press freedom index. (Via Reporters sans frontières - ASIA)

The interesting bit is the MICA requirement that FEER "must have a legal representative in the country". This probably means that FEER is required to appoint what lawyers call a "process agent" in Singapore.

What's the significance of having a process agent in Singapore? Well, it's one of those rather technical legal/ procedural matters. The basic idea is that it enables the Singapore government to sue FEER .... in the Singapore courts.

Suppose FEER had no process agent in Singapore and no registered office here. If FEER then published an article which the Singapore government didn't like, it wouldn't be so easy for the government to start legal proceedings against FEER in Singapore. For various technical reasons, FEER may simply choose not to show up in court.

So our government may instead have to go to Hong Kong (where FEER's head office is located) and try to sue FEER there. And the HK courts may or may not be anywhere as sympathetic to the Singapore government's case as the courts of Singapore might possibly be (I pick and choose my words carefully here - you think about it for yourself, hor).

Now, if FEER does want to sell in Singapore and does obey MICA's requirement to appoint a process agent in Singapore, what's the effect? Effectively FEER is saying, "I agree to be sued in Singapore." If the Singapore government then sues FEER in Singapore, FEER has no choice but to show up to defend itself here. If FEER does not show up, it will automatically lose its case.

After which the Singapore government will go to the HK courts, wave the court order and make FEER pay up. Under this approach, it is generally not open to the HK courts to examine the substantive merits of the case. That's because FEER had already earlier agreed to be sued in Singapore. In other words, the HK courts will just accept the Singapore court order as correct and valid. It will not consider whether the FEER article in question was really defamatory.

Let's pause now to examine the wider implications of the Singapore government using this "process agent" method to tackle foreign media in Singapore.
1. If a foreign newspaper wants to sell in Singapore, it has to appoint a process agent here.

2. If it appoints a process agent here, it has to bear in mind the possibility of being sued by the Singapore government, for defamation, in the Singapore courts.

3. Thus whenever it publishes any article, it has to consider whether the article is "defamatory" of the Singapore government.

4. Let's say that more precisely. The foreign newspaper has to consider whether the Singapore courts would regard the article as "defamatory" of the Singapore government.

Not what you or me or the man in the street would regard as "defamatory" ... not what a Hong Kong judge or an English judge or a Thai judge would regard as "defamatory" .... but what the Singapore courts would regard as "defamatory" of the Singapore government. There are some potentially scary implications here, because we can expect the chilling effect to kick in once again.

Also, I can't help but think of Archie Ong and Piragasam Singaravelu. Remember them? Many years ago, they accused ex-National Kidney Foundation CEO TT Durai, of financial wrongdoing and improprieties. TT Durai took them to court and successfully sued their pants off for defamation.

But now we know who was right and who was wrong. Don't we?

Poor Archie. Poor Piragasam. No one's returning a cent to them now. I hope their sad stories will at least make Singaporean think twice about whether defamation is always really defamation ... or whether sometimes, it's just the truth.

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29 comments:

wert said...

Durai and gang isn't proscuted by the government(PP office) at all. They are facing a civil suit from the new NKF management.

Thus, in the eyes of the government, they had not really done any wrong. Someone please do correct me if I am wrong.

Anonymous said...

Durai and some of the directors are charged under the Prevention of Corrution Act but are presently out on bail. These proceedings are separate from the civil suit from the current board of directors of the NKF.

Nice to see you back, MrWang. Miss your postings.

WKE said...

Maybe this article is the reason why the sg govt is coming hard on foreign media, there is a article in the current Jul/Aug of FEER, its titled "Singapore’s ‘Martyr,’ Chee Soon Juan" The url link is here
http://www.feer.com/articles1/2006/0607/free/p024.html

Read and decide for yourself. Views are welcome.

Anonymous said...

What would the consequence be if the publications do not agree with the terms of trade and chooses to pull out of Singapore's circulation?

Would the government then circulate photocopies of the publications as it did with the AWSJ many years back? Would this be a violation of the USSFTA?

Whispers from the heart said...

Maybe the government thinks our SPH and its journalists are good enough. No need to read foreign publications lah.

At the rate we are going, we may end up with only Her World and Female on the shelves.

Lucky there is internet.

Anonymous said...

And blogs.

Andy said...

Maybe they found the following paragraph from the July/August 2006 edition of Far Eastern Economic Review kind of hard to swallow:

"All these tensions will erupt when strongman Lee Kuan Yew dies. Mr Chee notes that the ruling party is so insecure that Singapore’s founder has been unable to step back from front-line politics. The PAP still needs the fear he inspires in order to keep the population in line. Power may have officially passed to his son, Lee Hsien Loong, but even supporters privately admit that the new prime minister doesn’t inspire confidence."

Anonymous said...

So what if FEER did not comply ? No more circulation ?

Sure, we have the Internet. But we all know that access to undesirable websites such as playboy is blocked.

waterchild said...

I wonder what these foreign newspapers see in being based in Singapore?

I don't think the circulation here is more than 5K. And they have to post bond plus appoint process agent.

Is it worth their while?

Might as well locate in HK where they can have a more vibrant industry and closer access to China.

lim said...

No climate of fear?

ivan said...

could FEER then argue tt in coming to it's judgement, a fair trial wasn't reached, thus its verdict unenforceable (there's a similar canadian case, which philip jeya acted in, though for the party seeking to enforce the judgement). But i guess that's where the deposit comes in ;)

Anonymous said...

I thought Singapore need foreign investors to provide jobs?

These foreign publications should be given the right business environment and freedom to encourage them to set up offices in Singapore. Let Singapore be a Media Hub.

These foreign publications can provide plenty of jobs and make journalism in Singapore a more lucrative job since the market will be bigger. You will then see the best journalists in Straits Times job-hopping.

Imagine slowly, CNN and other media companies setting up offices in Singapore. Singapore media workers will be richer in experience and financially.

This reminds me of the 'Warwick University Incident' whereby the university was afraid the Singapore Government telling them what to teach.You cannot blame Warwick.Like a convict, Singapore have a bad record.

Lau Min-tsek said...

"So what if FEER did not comply ? No more circulation ?

Sure, we have the Internet. But we all know that access to undesirable websites such as playboy is blocked. "

What I meant was, what would the government do if all these publications are to decide NOT to sell their magazines/papers in Singapore.

That was what happened to AWSJ when they decided that they were not going to apologise or print in full a government's rebuttal to some alleged misrepresentation (or whatever) more than 10 years back. AWSJ stopped all sales and circulation in Singapore.

The government never expected this, and the fallout was that when AWSJ pulled out, (1) everyone noticed and the government lost face. (2) A lot of businesses complained that ASWJ is important for business and the government has hurt its pro-business image.

So the government sold (or was it distributed free? That would be soooooo unlike the government to give anything free.) photocopies of the AWSJ much to the dismay of the AWSJ. In doing so, the Singapore government has basically ignored the copyrights and intellectual property rights of the AWSJ and "pirated" it (minus the ads, of course. The government weren't interested in publishing the ads for AWSJ). Not good for a country then who wanted to promoted IP protection and even made it a promotional pitch to foreign businesses.

Years later, this issue became a sticky point in the negotiations for the USSFTA. I believe that the Singapore government refused to relent on this issue claiming the usual "special circumstances". I am unsure of this point but I think the US chose to give the benefit of the doubt to Singapore. However, the fact that the US made noise about it was surely not unnoticed by the Singapore government.

So...... say TIME magazine decided that they aren't going to play nice and pulled out. Wow! Everyone in the world is going to notice! Singapore is the only free trading and developed country NOT to have TIME magazine! People in the business community is going to complain cos they want their TIME mag! Blah blah blah.....

What is the government going to do next? Sell photocopies of TIME mag like what they did to AWSJ?

Let's say the Singapore government did sell photocopies of TIME mag.

We now have a stricter USSFTA arrangement that protects IP. If TIME mag decides to take the issue with the US government, there MAY be a good possibility of penalties as dictated by the USSFTA, unless the foreign press has been completely exempted. Anyone who knows, please comment.

BTW, the USSFTA is not the only treaty that Singapore has signed that puts the onus of protecting IP on Singapore. There should be other angles out there.

So the situation as I understand it becomes like this:

(1) Foreign press chooses to play ball and everyone pretends that nothing has happened. All is well. Meanwhile, our press ranking in RSF will drop to 156 out of 162 countries for year 2007.

(2) Foreign press chooses not to play ball and foresake its license to sell. The Singapore government is embarassed that a major publication is not available in Singapore and could not do anything about it.

(3) Foreign press chooses not to play ball and foresake its license to sell. The Singapore government chooses to sell photocopies of the publication and in doing so, the Singapore government is betting that the publications will choose not to pursue this matter of piracy.

(4) Foreign press chooses not to play ball and foresake its license to sell. The Singapore government chooses to sell photocopies of the publication. The foreign press pursues this matter of piracy with their respective governments and reminds the Singapore government that they have to respect IP. The Singapore government have to continusously claim "special circumstances" blah blah blah on why we can't have a free foreign press in Singapore that "engages in domestic politics". This does not make then look good.

(5) Here's a radical idea: Foreign press chooses not to play ball and foresake its license to sell. Singapore government decided to BLOG the whole publication under an ANONYMOUS name and denies all knowledge of it. Meanwhile, the mainstream media carries articles that mentions this new blog to generate traffic so no one will miss their TIME, FEER etc...... Singapore government is very pleased with the power of NEW MEDIA -- when it is properly used by them, of course.

In brief:

Is there anything else the Singapore government can do? The range of options looks pretty limited to the above, which does not give much room for manuveur.

In the end, it is a lose-lose situation for everyone. For the government, the foreign press, and most of all, our own citizens.

Lau Min-tsek said...

"Sure, we have the Internet. But we all know that access to undesirable websites such as playboy is blocked. "

The policy of "gazetting" foreign publications (as it is called), is to hit them at their weakest spot -- their sales and circulation figure.

This assumes that ALL foreign publication puts pecuniary interest above all else. (well.... once upon a time, one publication, the AWSJ, didn't..... but not anymore -- another story for another time.)

So........ If I AM THE GOVERNMENT.....

** rubbing both hands with an evil shit-grin **

I would just block all the paid sites of the foreign publication who wouldn't play ball with me.

Hey, it is only 5 sites! How hard is it to block 5 sites?

Oh...... just to make sure the holier-than-thou foreign press gets the message.....

...... I WOULD JUST BAN ONE PAGE:

-- the page where readers have to input their credit card numbers.

Everything else, can go on as usual. Feel free to read all the free contents.

What? Do I hear people mentioning BLOGGERS and MIRROR sites that bypass our proxies' firewalls? Well..... go ahead! Feel free to read for free even the subversive articles, as long as the FOREIGN PUBLICATION DOES NOT MAKE ANY MONEY OUT OF THEM.

It will even make the business community happy to get their FEER, TIME, IHT etc online for FREE!

And I thank all those bloggers and mirror sites for proving that the Singapore government promotes internet development and does not censor them.

Anonymous said...

while we're on the topic, check out this up-and-coming blogger's take on the issue at:

http://noself.blogspot.com/2006/08/channelnewsasia_04.html

Lau Min-tsek said...

"Imagine slowly, CNN and other media companies setting up offices in Singapore. Singapore media workers will be richer in experience and financially."

Actually, the Singapore government has traditionally been suspicious of foreign press setting up offices in Singapore, even such popular channels like CNN.

CNN was original not allowed to be shown in Singapore (I am tempted to use the word ban). It was only when the business community CONTINUOUSLY complained to the government that eventually the government relented. CNN, you see, is also considered a business tool for businessmen to get their up-to-date info.

Initially, CNN is only allowed in selected hotels for foreign visitors. I remember reading articles that this decision is also pushed along by the first persian gulf war, where foreign businessmen complained that they are not getting the most up-to-date info on the war.

As CNN continues to be popular in Singapore, the Singapore government came up with another strategy by creating CNA. The idea is to provide more space to CNA by making it a free to air channel, hence the extra Singapore (government approved) content would "drown out" or at least dilute the foreign content of CNN and the likes.

(of course, CNA also had other reasons for its creation.)

So.....

The Singapore government views foreign media who wants to set up offices here with a cautious attitude. They need to be MANAGED carefully. Oh.... it is not often publicised, but once in a while, a foreign journalist gets kicked out of the country and there are journalists who are denied entry into Singapore. That's "management" to you.

(Radical media companies such as Disney, Lucasfilm and AXN, on the other hand, are welcomed, sometimes with EDB grants and incentives.... hmm..... I wonder why....?)

And who cares about local "media workers" who would be "richer in experience and financially"? THEY are SUPPOSED to write nothing but good things about Singapore. Critical thoughts unimportant.

Remember Mr Brown?

KiWeTO said...

Well,

one can only hope international condemnation will result in enhanced transparency in the future processes of government in Singapore.

If all 5 papers decide that this is beyond their journalistic integrity, and pull out of SG, it will be a very big EGG being thrown.

One can push and prod, and nibble away at a journo's integrity. All it takes is that final straw... question is, will this be it?

Or will it be another case of a small red dot deciding to assert its right to North-Korean-style media control as defined in its right to sovereignty?

C'est la vie. We get the government we wanted.



E.o.M.

John Riemann Soong said...

Mr Wang's legal commentary is insightful here, very different from the other blogs.

I can't wait till LKY dies. There was a time when I held reverence for him, but alas...

On a wildly tangential note, FEER is an unfortunate and (shall I say, "feersome") acronym.

Anonymous said...

In the 14 Aug 06 issue of Time, the editor wrote that the job of the press is to provide citizens with the information and perspectives, so that citizens can do their job of approving or disapproving of the government's policies. Governments derive their just powers from the consent of the governed, but the governed needs to be as informed and knowledgeable as possible to make that consent meaningful.
But the PAP government thinks the opposite way.

Anonymous said...

IMHO, there is a fundamental flaw in ur theory about the rationale behind the Spore govt's action. The requirement of a process agent n $200K deposit is not meant to allow the Spore govt to sue FEER and other foreign publications. It is meant to allow certain private individuals belonging to a cetain political party to sue FEER n others. In other words, the Spore govt move is not meant to protect the perceived interests of the Spore govt or Spore but that of certain private individuals. No?

David said...

I am not totally supportive of the majority party opinion. In fact I am dismayed with events like GRC, P4 streaming and good seats, even in Mass Com, going to top maths and science scores. I didn't even care what wine Francis Seow bought.

I felt empathy for Dr. Chee in using NSU funds to courier his wife's thesis thinking the expeditious process would support his research.

However in this instance, I think this journalist went over the top.

I had no occasion to consider respect for Chee but this article has removed any desire.

I'm not in favor of Government control of the media and I believe as a young man LKY gave a sound argument in that regard to the Federation Parliament.

Butt in this instance the journalist was trying to trash the Government.

I'm only sorry a third party didn’t address the issue. There are people in Singapore that would support change.

What better way to prove sincerity than to shoot down such an obvious 'sabo' of an establishment that does give good medical and ...hmmm.

Opposition for the sake of opposition is self-serving.

If LKY and LHL have to stand up for themselves it has the effect of giving credulous to the Author.

I don't understand how the editors could have passed this article as unbiased or relevant.

I'm an Engineer. If I audit Management who fails to note a subordinate's questionable action: I hold Management responsible.

I don't think FEER will find sympathy in the Hong Kong Courts. The animosity is too blatant. FEER Management condoned this ridiculous attack.

Any Singaporean who cannot see through this ridiculous attack doesn't deserve the label of serious opposition.

Bringing NKF into the issue shows the author did not do his homework. Yes T.T. Durai is an arrogant, egotist. But he built NKF into a world-class enviable institution having units all over the island.

T.T. Durai showed his worth on the world stage and Mrs. Goh was right to say he was not over paid for the responsibility he held.

As much as I was pro-opposition, I felt they were fools to touch that issue. I even thought the PAP was dangling a carrot over the oil-pit.

If you are not part of the solution you are part of the problem. Never mind Government of Singapore can you improve on NKF? If you think this is the important fight, you aren't even on the right battlefield.

In my mind FEER has shown themselves to be petty and vindictive and given easy victory to those they intend to besmirch.

Gan Ainm said...

Based on this Singapore process agent's website: http://www.abinitioprocess.com/our-services that seems to be the correct interpretation of what the law requires, namely that the foreign news organisation has to appoint a company like Ab Initio Process to accept service of process on their behalf if they're ever sued.

In fact Ab Initio Process makes specific mention of the fact that they accept appointments from foreign news organisations on their website.

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