The Government's proposal to introduce a moratorium on campaigning on the eve of Polling Day is sensible, but it will go down badly if it over-regulates what the Prime Minister correctly identifies as the "grey" area of online news.
Opposition leaders have already criticised the plan as another move to tilt the playing field against them. Few would disagree with their assessment if licensed mainstream media are the only news sources permitted to influence voters during the "cooling-off" period.
PM Lee Hsien Loong revealed that a Bill is in the works to "extend the period between Nomination Day and Polling Day by one extra day and use that extra day as a cooling off period before polling itself". At present, campaigning is banned on Polling Day but allowed right up to the previous night.
The cooling-off day would give voters more time to reflect on the issues without being bombarded by new messages from the candidates, the PM said. The exception would be the party political broadcast, which could air on the eve of Polling Day. These broadcasts comprise free airtime on Singapore TV channels given to the main parties. They are allocated time in proportion to the number of seats they contest.
Just as news media are now permitted to publish news and opinion on Polling Day, they would also be allowed to do so during the cooling-off day. As for online content from candidates and their parties – "what you are putting out in your own name", as Lee put it – these fall squarely in the "campaigning" category and would be banned during Polling Day and its Eve.
Between these two categories is a grey area: online content that is produced by an individual or group that's neither the internet operation of a licensed news organisation (such as straitstimes.com or channelnewsasia.com, which would get the green light) nor the official website of a candidate or party (such as pap.sg, yoursdp.org or wp.sg, all of which would get the red light).
In this grey area would be a wide variety of "citizen journalism" sites. Some may be come across as balanced, while others may be ideologically partisan but without any explicit connection to parties. How will they be treated under the proposed legislation?
Green light for citizen journalism?
If Singaporeans are allowed to consume mainstream media reports of the campaign on the cooling-off day and Polling Day, it is difficult to justify denying them the right to read alternative media reports produced by their fellow citizens. This is why citizen journalism should be granted the same "news" exemption as licensed media.
However, the drafters of the legislation will no doubt worry about the risk that a few of these citizen journalists are actually proxies of political parties. Allowing them to circulate could amount to a large loophole in the law.
Red light for citizen journalism?
The Government's customary way of closing such a loophole is to recognise only licensed news organisations as providers of "news". This is the approach taken in the new legislation on filming illegal protests: licensed news organisations may cover such events, but citizen journalists may not. (See earlier article on civil disobedience videos.)
However, it would be a mistake to define "campaigning" so broadly that the cooling-off law bans all news and commentary by non-licensed online news providers and commentators. This would not in fact prevent determined party activists from finding ways to evade the law: they would still get their messages across. The only ones who would be deterred are the more law-abiding and moderate citizen journalists. Thus, cyberspace would be hollowed out of precisely the voices you would want to hear, denying Singaporeans potentially valuable insights that will help them make rational decisions on Polling Day.
This prospect already has independent bloggers fuming. Gerald Giam says sarcastically, "How nice to know I will have one extra day to clear my mind of the nonsense that opposition candidates were sprouting the previous nine days, and for one full day reflect on the rational and objective rebuttals by the government (but not the PAP, wink, wink) disguised as news the day before Polling Day."
Green light, please
Although surveys show that the mainstream media are overwhelmingly more relied on than the internet as a source of election information, online media play a vital role in providing alternative perspectives.
Reports on the cooling-off proposal have noted that several other countries, such as Australia and Indonesia, have similar systems. One important difference is that in these countries, unlike Singapore, governments are not allowed to impose discretionary licensing on news media. Therefore, voters can still receive a wide range of perspectives through their traditional media during the cooling-off period. As long as Singapore's newspaper, tv and radio choices are constrained by licensing, Singapore voters will need alternative online media for a fuller picture.
But if citizen journalism is banned, the biggest loser would be the Government itself. The move would hand a fresh round of ammunition to those who say that the PAP can only win by denying Singaporeans a plurality of media. Better to live with the loophole, which is practically impossible to close, than to engage in overkill.
- Read the ST article on PM Lee's remarks here.