The Dartmouth Observer

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Monday, November 22, 2004
"Special circumstances"

It's time to turn our attention once again to my dear old country. A recent report by Reporters without Borders has ranked Singapore 147th out of 167 countries in a list of global press freedoms, behind such specimens of enlightened thought as the Palestinian Authority, Liberia, and Kyrgyzstan. (A similar list by Freedom House has us slightly better at 135th out of 193.) For a country whose GDP per capita is 29th out of 231, this is really not good at all.

Typically, the government is protesting - and typically, doing a bad job at it. The Information Minister says that the Reporters Without Borders index "is based largely on a different media model which favours the advocacy and adversarial role of the press." By contrast, "We have a different media model in Singapore...This model has evolved out of our special circumstances and has enabled our media to contribute to nation building."

Of course, the whole point of a global ranking system is that it has to employ the same criteria across the board. "Special circumstances" of the sort the Information Minister mentions can't be taken into account, particularly if the alternative model proposes a "different media model." Otherwise, what's the point of a unified ranking systems? Perhaps Singapore would prefer to be compared to countries like North Korea and Iran that would have similar views on the role of media in society. (NB: I'm not drawing a moral equivalence here between my country and North Korea.)

In fact, if you look at these comments in a slightly different light, you'll notice that the Information Minister, in setting out to refute these claims, merely lends weight to the argument that Singaporeans enjoy very little press freedom. He says quite clearly that the media contributes to nation building in Singapore, that it has to be sensitive to the government's interests. If so, then the media ain't free, because freedom of the press means, by any reasonable standards, the freedom to pursue truth and fairness without having to worry about political pressures. It would have been more honest of the Information Minister to admit that Singapore employs a different media model, and therefore deserves its low ranking.