Edson C. Tandoc Jr.
Wee Kim Wee School of Communication and Information, Nanyang Technological University, Singapore
Singapore is a strategic centre for the English-speaking audience in South East Asia and a media hub for the entire region, with a highly developed if tightly controlled media market. A new law to prohibit the spread of ‘fake news’ has attracted criticism over fears that it could limit freedom of speech.
In May 2019, the Singapore parliament passed a controversial law to limit the spread of ‘fake news’. The Protection from Online Falsehoods and Manipulation Bill was the culmination of an extensive series of public hearings by a parliamentary select committee. Under this new law, all government ministers will have the power to direct individuals, publishers, internet platforms, and mainstream media to publish corrections to a false statement if the executive deems the falsehood in question is a threat to the public interest.1 The government says the law is necessary to protect Singaporeans from harmful content – in particular inciting racial and religious disharmony. But critics say the bill gives the government too much power, potentially threatening civil liberties.2
The law comes after online site States Times Review voluntarily closed down in November 2018 after being ordered by the Singapore government to take down an article it published that linked Prime Minister Lee Hsien Loong with the 1Malaysia Development Berhad (1MDB) corruption scandal. The Monetary Authority of Singapore (MAS) had said such insinuation was baseless and defamatory.3 Mr Lee also filed a defamation suit against another blogger who had shared the article on Facebook.4 STR founder Alex Tan, who operated the site while based in Australia, later announced that he was transferring control of the site to someone based in Canada. STR has since been renamed as Singapore Herald and can still be accessed in Singapore.
If approved, the proposed ‘fake news’ law in Singapore will be in addition to regulation that already applies to local broadcast and online media outlets. Starting in 2013, the government introduced a new framework that required individual licensing for online news sites that publish regular articles on Singapore news and current affairs, and have large numbers of monthly visitors.5 Licensed sites are required to remove content that is in breach of content standards, such as pornographic, extremist, or racially insensitive content, within 24 hours and post a performance bond of SG$50,000, similar to the bond requirement for television broadcasters.
Just two big media companies dominate the production of local news and in recent years have extended their dominance from traditional to online platforms. MediaCorp, owned by a state investment agency, operates all local television stations in Singapore. The website of its cable news network Channel News Asia is by far the most popular online news source, used by 46% in our survey.
Meanwhile Singapore Press Holdings (SPH), with close links to the ruling party, has a virtual monopoly on the newspaper industry and owns most local papers, including Chinese-language Lianhe Zaobao, Malay-language Berita Harian, and Tamil-language Tamil Murasu. Its English-language broadsheet, the Straits Times, is in second place in online news at 37%, down from 45% in 2018. Yahoo! News is the third most frequently used news site (30%).
However, digital media start-up mothership.sg inched its way to become the fourth most used news site in Singapore, from 23% in 2018 to 29% this year. Founded in 2014, mothership.sg is known for its bite-sized articles, many sourced from viral social media posts. The site claims to get an average of 9.2m visitors per month, some 60% of whom are between 25 and 44 years old.
Online media account for the bulk of news consumption in Singapore, as television and print continue to see sharp declines. TV was down 4 percentage points, to 51%, while print fell to 38%, down 5 percentage points from 2018 after a 10 point drop the year before. Digital news consumption appears to have stabilised in 2019 after years of rapid growth, with 86% saying they get news online each week and 62% via social media. Social media use for news decreased slightly for both Facebook and WhatsApp – platforms that have borne the brunt of blame for the spread of disinformation in Singapore — but increased for both YouTube and Instagram.
Print consumption has declined significantly over the last few years while online and social media continue to be the most important source of news. In this high-tech city state, mobile news consumption dominates with over three-quarters (76%) accessing news via smartphone.
Trust in the news decreased to 42% from 47% in 2018, perhaps driven in part by widespread political and media discussion of ‘fake news’. Long-established traditional media companies tend to carry highest levels of trust – along with international brands like the BBC and CNN. Digital-only brands like mothership.sg seem to lack the track record and heritage that builds credibility with news users.
- www.todayonline.com/singapore/explainer-how-online-news-sites-can-be-compelled-correct-take-down-fake-news ↩
- www.nytimes.com/2019/04/01/world/asia/singapore-fake-news-law.html ↩
- www.channelnewsasia.com/news/singapore/states-times-review-founder-says-will-shut-down-website-10914264 ↩
- https://mothership.sg/2018/12/leong-sze-hian-lee-hsien-loong-defamation/ ↩
- www.gov.sg/factually/content/what-is-the-licensing-framework-for-online-news-sites-all-about ↩