Friday, October 21, 2005

Rethinking political censorship in Singapore

By Dharmendra Yadav, TODAY
First Published 21 October 2005

TODAY, legal and media professionals will gather at the Supreme Court to debate the relationship between law and media. One can expect the issue of the Films Act to be brought up.

The Media Development Authority (MDA) recently noted that the MediaCorp television series Up Close did not breach the Films Act prohibition on party political films, as the episodes in question - which featured five ministers talking about their portfolios - were "non-partisan" and aired "for the purpose of reporting current affairs".

The Government had introduced the ban on party political films amid concerns that "political discourse in Singapore would degenerate into 30-second spots directed by image consultants", and that the quality of election campaigning would be compromised. As then Minister for Information and the Arts George Yeo emphasised, the Government desired "to keep political debate in Singapore serious".

According to the Films Act, "a party political film" is one "made by or on behalf of any political party in Singapore"; by any body whose objectives primarily concern Singapore politics; or by any person for "any political end".

A film has a political end if it contains material "intended or likely to affect voting in any election or national referendum in Singapore"; "partisan or biased references"; or comments on "any political matter". As is typical of most media legislation, the classification is worded broadly to capture diverse activities, even discussion on government policies. It allows for two situations in which a film is not a party-political film: If it is made to report current events, or to give general information on election "procedures and polling times". Offenders can be fined up to $100,000 or imprisoned for up to two years.

The MDA faces a daunting task in deciding what is - or isn't - a "party political film". How does it decide if something is "partisan" or if it merely "reports current events"? Is this best decided by an independent body of persons, or by a group of government employees?

Some, like me, feel a review of the Films Act is in order. For example, its process of assessment, investigation, enforcement and appeal can be codified separately.

Decisions should preferably be made by an independent body of people whose deliberations should be public and free from any perceived political pressure from the dominant party or the opposition parties. There should be opportunities for appeal and for judicial review. Yet even with such codification, any decision can be disputed as subjective, since it is based on interpretation. So, we need to ask if banning such party political films is the best way forward in the first place.

These films can be easily screened outside Singapore, and controversy is often the best crowd-drawer. Also, film bans are increasingly irrelevant in this age of broadband Internet access, which has made it possible to download films from websites that are hosted overseas, such as Martyn See's documentary on Singapore Democratic Party secretary-general Chee Soon Juan, Singapore Rebel.

Even if such websites are blocked - as they are in China - there are Internet entrepreneurs who will simply mirror the website and provide regulators like MDA with a bigger problem to manage. A better solution may be not to ban these films but to require them to include warnings or declarations, for instance.

If the film is deemed partisan, MDA, together with the Singapore Film Commission, can appoint another film-maker to introduce brief footage that will make it less partisan. For example, if the film makes fun of film censors, get a quick view from film censors, or request an academic to provide a brief analysis. Such clips can be screened at the end of the film to balance audience perspective, as a condition for the film being passed for screening in Singapore.

Conditions can also be imposed on where and how party political films can be screened. For example, like R21 (restricted) films, such films could be screened in specified cinemas only. Tickets could be subject to a minimum price of $20 - half of which could be donated to the film commission and the National Arts Council.

These moves would address the Government's concerns about the negative effect of party political films and its desire "to keep political debate in Singapore serious", while in the long run, also enrich our creative industries and make audiences more media savvy.

The writer, a corporate counsel, contributes in a personal capacity. - TODAY

Saturday, October 15, 2005

MediaCorp series didn't breach Films Act (Oh really?)

The Straits Times
Oct 15, 2005

I refer to the letter, "Films Act : Did MediaCorp run foul of the law?" (ST, Oct 14), by Mr Kevin Lau Jit Hwee. He asked if MediaCorp's screening of a series on PAP leaders earlier this year could have violated the Films Act.

The series referrred to is the programme Up Close, which featured five ministers. In the series, the ministers discussed with invited guests policy issues pertaining to their portfolios, such as youth, employment, education and health.

The series clearly did not breach the Films Act as the discussions were conducted in a non-partisan manner and were aired by MediaCorp for the purpose of reporting current affairs.

K. Bhavani (Ms)
Corporate Communications
Ministry of Information, Communication and the Arts

My views

1) Interesting that MICA has chosen not to invoke the exemptions provided for in Section 40 of the Films Act but opted instead for Section 33 which allows films relating to "reporting of current events." Does this mean that anyone who wishes to make a documentary about opposition figures can now do so if they follow exactly the same format as 'Up Close?'

2) More than one person has commented to me that 'Singapore Rebel' feels exactly like 'Up Close'. My video does not contain a single mention of Chee Soon Juan's party nor its platforms. Until now, MDA has not told me exactly why 'S'pore Rebel' has been deemed a 'party political film.' The above letter does not bother to disclose the reason either.

3) The police report lodged against MediaCorp for the screening of 'Up Close' includes another documentary, made by Hong Kong-based RTHK and shown on CNA in 2002. Success Stories : Lee Kuan Yew charts the political career of Lee Kuan Yew and contains scenes on the Government's responses to political opponents such as Francis Seow, Tang Liang Hong, JB Jeyaratnam and Chee Soon Juan. Would the Government qualify this documenatary as "non-partisan" and aired "for the purpose of reporting current affairs" as well?

4) Interesting that the above letter has chosen the term "ministers" instead of "PAP ministers" and "non-partisan" rather than "unbiased." Section 33 of the Films Act, for which I am under investigations for, is much broader than that. That MICA has now given the all-clear to Up Close means that the series

- did not contain any wholly or partly any matter which is intended or likely to affect voting in any election or national referendum in Singapore

- did not contain wholly or partly either partisan or biased references to or comments on any political matter, including

i) an election or a national referendum in Singapore;

(ii) a candidate or group of candidates in an election;

(iii) an issue submitted or otherwise before electors in an election or a national referendum in Singapore;

(iv) the Government or a previous Government or the opposition to the Government or previous Government;

(v) a Member of Parliament;

(vi) a current policy of the Government or an issue of public controversy in Singapore; or

(vii) a political party in Singapore or any body whose objects relate wholly or mainly to politics in Singapore, or any branch of such party or body.

The above letter suggest that all five episodes of Up Close did not make a single biased reference to any of the above.

(Martyn See can only scratch his head and wait for the next police call...)

Friday, October 14, 2005

Films Act: Did MediaCorp run foul of the law?

The Straits Times
Oct 14, 2005

I REFER to Mr Chen Hwai Liang's letter, 'Govt doesn't depend on 'calibrated coercion' (ST, Oct 12), in which he reiterated that 'the Government must act when the law is broken, whether by opposition politicians or government supporters'.

Police are investigating independent Singaporean film maker Martyn See for making a documentary about an opposition leader as he may have violated the Films Act, which bans political advertising using film or video.

Earlier this year, MediaCorp screened a series on PAP leaders. Is it possible that it could have violated the Act? If yes, shouldn't it face police investigation too?

Kelvin Lau Jit Hwee


The letter writer may not be aware that a police report has been lodged against MediaCorp for the screening of Up Close and Success Stories.

Here are a few possible replies.

1. Section 40 the Films Act says

"This Act shall not apply to any film sponsored by the Government."

Therefore, in reply to the above query on the screening of 'Up Close' by MediaCorp's CNA, no police investigation will be initiated as the series was funded by the Government and hence is exempted from the Films Act. However, this does not mean that we practised a "one country, two laws" system. The Government makes responsible and unbiased films; Martyn See has made a irrensponsible and biased political film.

2. The Films Act also state that

"The Minister may, subject to such conditions as he thinks fit, exempt any person or class of persons or any film or class of films from all or any of the provisions of this Act."

Therefore, the Minister has decided that both 'Up Close' and 'Success Stories' are exempted from the Films Act and hence no investigation is required. Martyn See's "Singapore Rebel', on the other hand, has been deemed a 'party political film' for which he must face the consequences if charged and convicted. Ministers are responsible people who do not make biased judgements on what constitutes a biased film. Ministers are elected leaders who make informed and balanced decisons based on feedback and consultation with a view of ensuring the long-term well-being of Singapore.

3. Martyn See's video is being investigated by the police for presenting political issues in a 'biased, partisan' manner. His subject, Dr Chee Soon Juan, is an opposition member and the video is made to accentuate partisan politics. 'Up Close' and 'Success Stories', on the other hand, are balanced, non-partisan documentaries made about Government leaders. Broadcasters who produce and import shows about their own governments are the norm all over the world. We will risk falling behind if we penalise our broadcasters for putting out thoughtful documentaries about Singapore leaders.

4. We thank Mr Kelvin Lau for his letter and would like to inform him that a police report has indeed been filed against MediaCorp for the showing of 'Up Close' and 'Success Stories.' The Media Development Authority is looking into the matter. Meanwhile, Mr Martyn See has not been charged yet. We are mindful that the law must be applied equally.

Tuesday, October 04, 2005

Let us watch political films, say ST readers

Published in the Straits Times on May 21 2005

Last week, Insight looked at the restrictions on party political films under the Films Act. Readers wrote in and SMS-ed their views. Here's a sampling:

"If political parties' newsletters are allowed to be published and distributed, I see no reason why the same cannot apply to political films.

As long as issues of race and religion are not depicted, the question of evoking emotive reactions need not arise.

Most Singaporeans are now well-educated, more open and discerning. They know that some films are made in a partisan manner and have a political agenda.

Imposing restrictions may give the wrong impression that the Government views Singaporeans as immature and not enlightened enough to know what is right and what is wrong."


"There could be a classification if the Government is so unnerved by films like Singapore Rebel.

It is the apt balance between letting us watch what we want and being cautioned that a particular film's themes are controversial. I watched Singapore Rebel on the Internet and it further demonstrates that political films can be viewed by the public regardless of the Government's anachronic prohibition of political films."


"After reading the article, my immediate response is : Why not?

'Speak up, speak out, speak well,' encourages Prime Minister Lee Hsien Loong.

Are films not one way of speaking out?

Supporters of the act stress that it ensures that Singapore politics does not degenerate into an advertising slugfest during elections.

But giving electoral speeches is already a form of advertising."


"Fahrenheit 9/11 was released in 2004. It was a film dealing with political issues and was biased against the Bush administration. It was not restricted.

It was released in the year of the US elections. With the movie fresh in their minds, Americans went to vote. Bush won.

What this shows is a mature society is capable of thinking for itself. By stifling us with such restrictions, the Government is attempting to protect Singaporeans from this very thought process.

How is our society expected to progress when decisions are always being made for us?"


"We should relax the restriction. Any party can make its own party film if all the rules are followed.

The PAP can make a film about the founding of the party, its founding fathers, and about MM Lee fighting for Singapore. Because Singaporeans nowadays really don't care about our history and many don't even know our history. If the PAP truly has the support of the people, why worry?"

SMS from reader