Following SPH’s announcement to restructure its whole media-related business model to a newly formed Company-Limited-by-Guarantee (CLG), opposition party Red Dot United (RDU) has raised several concerns regarding this move including the decrease in media independence, failure to depoliticise newspapers from the ruling government’s stance as well as lack of transparency in the usage of public monies to fund SPH.
In a blog post published on its website on Tuesday (11 May), the party pointed out that the “troubling” part of this restructure is that the Government is not disclosing the amount of money it is planning to use to fund the media business.
“What is especially troubling about the restructuring is that the Government has not revealed how much the Government plans to fork out to fund SPH Media on a regular basis. Mr Iswaran said it is too premature and something that the current SPH shareholders have to decide on as they transition the company’s media business to the CLG,” RDU noted.
It added, “The Minister also failed to say how the Government would hold the CLG accountable, given that tax-payers’ dollars will now be pumped into the not-for-profit company by deferring once again to SPH shareholders.”
While delivering his ministerial statement in Parliament earlier this week, Minister for Communication and Information S Iswaran said that SPH shareholders must first give the proposed restructuring plan the green light before any concrete decisions on funding can be announced.
Stating that it is “premature” to give a figure at this juncture, Mr Iswaran said that the new CLG must undergo the process of formulating its “strategic business direction, going forward”.
“(It) is not because we are reluctant to talk about them, but it’s simply because first, this is still a matter before the shareholders of SPH. They have to decide whether they want to approve this. It is only after that, that we can really get into a more detailed discussion,” said the Minister.
He added, “And in that matrix, the different sources of revenues that it expects or anticipates, and what role the Government funding (will) play in that matrix.”
Mr Iswaran said this in response to questions raised by Leader of Opposition Pritam Singh who wanted to know the amount of funding the Government intends to channel into the CLG.
To this, RDU expressed that it is “baffling” for Mr Iswaran to grant SPH stakeholders so much of discretion as they can name their price tag and decide on the amount they want to be held accountable.
“The Minister must surely realise that the expenditure of public funds now necessitates a higher level of scrutiny. Such accountability cannot be at the convenience of the Government, but to maintain public confidence.
“Yet rather than defer the definition of journalistic standards to the public, as some parliamentarians have suggested, Mr Iswaran refused this oversight twice. It is inconceivable that a government fabled for its prudence over public monies should behave with such a laissez faire attitude,” the alternative party stated.
Government to have all levers of control
RDU also opined that with the restructuring, the Government seems to be “tightening the reins of journalism”.
The party also pointed out that Mr Iswaran had mentioned that the Newspaper and Printing Presses Act (NPPA) will be applied to all SPH titles, but failed to focus on how NPPA on its own has been controlling media independence via its control of media funding and editorial self-censorship.
“His indifference to setting up proper checks on government influence over media was repeatedly supported by ‘where we are right now’, constantly trumpeting the ‘independence’ that the Singapore media have today. Contradictorily, such insistence would only deepen public unease that the Government prefers to keep the media docile.”
As for the appointment of former Transport Minister Khaw Boon Wan as the CLG’s chairman, RDU expressed: “In July 2017, during his tenure as Transport Minister and faced with the mainstream media’s coverage of train breakdowns, Mr Khaw accused them for having “turned tabloid” and “magnified the problem unfairly”.
“If this is the attitude that Chairman Khaw brings to the CLG, citizens have a right to be suspicious about how much undue influence the Government intends to exert over the media. Mr Khaw was, after all, the former chairman of the People’s Action Party (PAP).”
The restructuring is doing more harm than good
Looking at this development, RDU believes that the restructuring of SPH would do “more harm than good” given that there’s lack of clear standards for quality journalism, mechanisms to stop government influence as well as public oversight on the use of public funds.
“Past appointments to the position of Chairman of SPH show that the post is reserved for PAP stalwarts and loyalists. The announcement of the restructuring of SPH had held promise, especially because with it, the Government had the opportunity to depoliticise the local newspapers so that Singapore can level up its status as a democracy that values media independence and freedom,” said the party’s Secretary-General Ravi Philemon.
RDU said that with the divestment of SPH to a CLG, it actually hoped that NPPA would be dismantled, a press council to set and adjudicate on media standards would be created, and an independent body to hand out public funds would be set-up.
However, none of these features were announced.
As such, the alternative party called on the Government to focus on ‘independent first’ approach when it restructures the country’s media models.
“If the Government is serious about ensuring the sustainability of our valued newspapers, it must take the necessary steps to enshrine the media’s integrity, enhance public accountability, and establish funding transparency. And the further these steps are from government control, the better it is for the reputation and future of our media industry,” it concluded.