Chapter 7. Freedom of the Press: A Cause Without Rebels
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Freedom of the Press: A Cause Without Rebels 137 137 7 C H A P T E R Freedom of the Press: A Cause Without Rebels In Singapore’s debates over censorship, the press is strangely silent about its own plight. One has to turn the clock back decades to find instances of professional journalists protesting collectively and publicly against their political restraints. The 1970s saw a “Save the Herald” campaign as government pressure mounted against the Singapore Herald. When Nanyang Siang Pau executives were arrested under the Internal Security Act, the newspaper used its own pages to protest its innocence and appeal directly to its readers.1 In the early 1980s, the Straits Times responded with a page one editorial when it felt unfairly accused of unprofessionalism over a scoop about impending bus fare hikes. Then, when a former senior civil servant, S.R. Nathan, was installed as executive chairman of the Straits Times group, some journalists wore black armbands in his presence to mourn the death of independent journalism.2 When the government engineered a merger of newspaper companies to form the Singapore Press Holdings group in the mid-1980s, more than a hundred Times House journalists protested outside the building, chanting “no merger”, and displaying a big banner with the words, “Whose idea was this?” By the 1990s, such impetuousness had evaporated. When the Business Times was rapped with the Official Secrets Act, journalists regarded the government’s actions as grossly excessive — but they bit their tongues. The traumatic affair began with Internal Security Department officers raiding the newsroom of the Business Times in full view of journalists one Thursday morning in 1992. Reuters broke the news on its wires the same day, with group editor-in-chief Cheong Yip Chap7 (137-157) 137 Chap7 (137-157) 137 4/2/12 2:54:03 PM 4/2/12 2:54:03 PM 138 Freedom from the Press Seng quoted as confirming that the newspaper’s journalists had been questioned and speculating that it had something to do with a leak of government information. The next day, Friday, the wires carried more detailed stories, with the managing editor providing factual information , but sharing no opinion. Astonishingly, Friday’s newspapers in Singapore said nothing about what had happened under their own roof the previous morning — apparently to avert any suspicion that they were using their pages to drum up sympathy. Only the next day, along with other regional papers, did the Business Times and Straits Times report the event. The delay was remarkable enough for Hong Kong’s South China Morning Post to headline its news story, “Papers silent over government raid on Business Times”.3 Four months later, Business Times editor Patrick Daniel, two economists and a civil servant were charged with breaching the Official Secrets Act. From that point, any press commentary could have been deemed to be interfering with the course of justice under Singapore’s sub judice laws. Before charges were brought against the accused, however, there had been a window of opportunity within which the newspapers were free — at least according to the letter of the law — to criticize the authorities’ actions. But political prudence resulted in the Singapore press displaying a superhuman self-restraint that most others would have found hard to muster in a similar situation. The only whimper of objection was a column written by Straits Times editor Leslie Fong more than a month after the raid. He pointed out the all-encompassing sweep of the OSA, asked for more clarity in the rules, and urged the government not to let fear of the OSA slow the flow of information and reduce journalists to mere postboxes. On the on-going case, Fong felt compelled to genuflect to the government’s authority. “Let me hasten to stress that all this is not to say that my colleagues and I think that the authorities are wrong to have ordered the investigation,” he said. “Equally, my colleagues will concede readily that if any among them has indeed broken the law, then he, or she, must face the consequences. They would not like it, but they live and learn.”4 Learn, they did. In 2008, a rare protest event for press freedom was held outside Singapore Press Holdings’ News Centre. In commemoration of World Press Freedom Day, banners were unfurled with such messages as “NEWSPAPER AND PRINTING PRESSES ACT = REPRESSION”.5 Forty years earlier, this might have been the...