The compromise of press freedom in the mass media industry is a familiar topic. However, given the rapid connectivity of today’s society, such a compromise has so far-reaching an impact that a revisit of this topic would be necessary.
Where does Singapore stand in truthful news reporting? And what are some lessons we can learn to avoid going to extremes to regulate news?
Lessons From Both Extremes
While the debate on whether Facebook’s fake news has helped Donald Trump win the US presidential election is still ongoing, it is undisputed that the mass media in general can influence the mindset of the populace.
Singaporeans are also frustrated with fake news circulating on social media. MP Zaqy Mohamad told The Straits Times that such misleading information, such as a bogus bomb threat, will pose a threat to Singapore’s harmony and society.
In Singapore, under the Telecommunications Act, it is an offence to write or disseminate fake news. A person who does that can be fined up to $10,000, jailed for three years, or both.
Germany is also considering passing a law that would allow a fine of up to 500,000 euros (S$752,920) against Facebook for each day it leaves a story – which has been labelled as fake news – online.
The impact against the mass media industry itself became apparent in the 2016 Gallup poll in America, which saw people’s trust and confidence in the mass media dropping to a record low, with only 32% saying they trust the media. The 2016 result reflected a sharp 20% drop as compared to the previous year, while acknowledging that the highest confidence achieved in history was 72% in 1976.
Thus, it may appear that ‘free speech’ has plateaued and is going downhill. As a result, regulatory measures would be needed.
However, on the other end of the spectrum, the results could be disastrous should a totalitarian approach be practised to the extreme. It may lead to state manipulation of people’s minds.
An excerpt from an editorial published on July 4, 1947 in the Chinese Communist Party (CCP)’s official newspaper Xinhua Daily serves as an epitome of the above-mentioned phenomenon.
“Since a young age, we have thought of the US as a lovable country. We believe this is partly due to the fact that the US has never occupied China, nor has it launched any attacks on China. More fundamentally, the Chinese people hold good impressions of the US based on the democratic and open-minded character of its people,” Xinhua Daily stated – perhaps to the astonishment of people from mainland China today.
However, as soon as the CCP sent soldiers to fight American troops in North Korea three years later, Americans were painted as the most evil imperialists in the world. In return, this incident might have served as evidence against the CCP itself for manipulating the media to justify its use of violence.
The most notorious disinformation (fake) news campaign by the CCP was their exploitation of the entire state media machinery to execute the policy of “ruining Falun Gong practitioners’ reputations” by spreading lies and fabricated information against this peaceful meditation discipline, to justify their unlawful persecution.
Since the persecution started in July 1999, over 2,000 newspapers, more than 1,000 magazines, and hundreds of local TV and radio stations were mobilised for this damaging disinformation campaign.
Moreover, these lies were effectively disseminated in the international community via the official Xinhua News Agency, China News Services, HK China News Agency, and other CCP-controlled overseas media, deceiving countless people.
The CCP even engaged its diplomatic system to entice foreign governments, senior officials and international media with political and economic incentives to keep silent about the persecution of Falun Gong.
A Demand for News From Non-Mainstream Media
Today, the totalitarian approach has also led to fraying public trust in the CCP’s news media and online information.
“Under a widening censorship regime and the proliferation of misleading and fake news online, China’s content providers are witnessing a surge in paying users,” reported Li Yuan, The Wall Street Journal reporter, on January 4, 2017.
The investigation section of the internet company Tencent Holdings asserted that about 55% of over 1,700 online users in China surveyed have paid for knowledge and insights from experts.
Tencent Holdings’ result coincides with a separate result from another survey conducted by iResearch, adding that there has been a significant increase of over 80% as compared to two years ago.
According to Li Yuan’s article, an interviewee revealed that he is paying almost one-third of his salary for content that he cannot obtain from mainstream media.
Conversely, China’s content providers – such as Dedao or Fenda – have yet to be successful in covering current affairs due to strict control by the regime. The Great Firewall is indeed holding the Chinese people captive from information and knowledge that can be critical for the people of China.
Fenda is one quintessential example. Founded in May 2016, Fenda attracted more than one million paying users within just six months before its content abruptly went offline for six weeks. Upon restarting, the service announced that it would focus only on health, career and personal finance.
“I really can’t talk about it,” said Ji Xiaohua, Fenda’s founder, when asked about the reason behind the abrupt service suspension.
Singapore: Where Do We Stand?
According to the 2016 World Press Freedom Index, Singapore’s ranking remained relatively unchanged at 154th out of 180 ranked countries. In contrast, the US ranked 49th and China ranked 176th.
These rankings may imply that Singapore is closer to the optimal degree of press freedom.
Indeed, the 2017 Edelman Trust Barometer has been reasonably favourable for Singapore, with 54% of the informed public trusting the media.
The chart below illustrates the Press Freedom Index for Singapore and the public trust in media over recent years, using Edelman Trust Barometer.
Notwithstanding other factors at stake, the chart above suggests a correlation between Press Freedom Ranking and trust in media.
As Singapore’s Press Freedom Ranking declined from 135th in 2011 to 149th in 2013, the trust in media improved slightly – perhaps due to efficiency measures in place to control the quality of news.
However, as the Press Freedom Ranking continues to drop, trust in media has gone down from 70% in 2013 to 54% in 2017. Such a trend may suggest that the optimal degree of media regulation has been reached between 2013 and 2014.
At the very least, the chart above indicates that an improved Press Freedom Ranking may be helpful in earning trust from the informed public.
Why Would It Matter?
Media is one of the major platforms for individuals to gain insight into events happening beyond their physical boundaries. News serves as a database from which readers can tap on to make decisions and form perceptions.
Thus, it is vital that news reporting makes upholding truthfulness and integrity its primary goal.
Besides, as people in today’s society tend to largely rely on socially constructed norms and values to differentiate right from wrong, would an overlooked wrongdoing ripple over mass media and gradually become a norm?
History Recorded for Posterity
The Chinese take great pride in having maintained 5,000 years of continuous historical records. Emperors appointed official historians to record major events such as battles, natural disasters, and diplomatic and economic affairs. Historians also took detailed notes on the emperors’ royal words and deeds in conducting state business.
It was work that particularly emphasised a truthful recording of history. Indeed, the loyalty of historians was demonstrated by their courage to keep honest accounts of everything the rulers said and did, good or bad.
Thus, since ancient times, the Chinese people have had faith in history and have used historical events to help evaluate the present and extrapolate principles to apply to current circumstances.
Among China’s vast body of historical works, “Zizhi Tongjian” is one of the country’s greatest books of imperial history. The chronological account covers a span of 1,362 years across some 16 dynasties, from 403 B.C. to A.D. 959.
It was compiled by prime minister and historian Sima Guang (司马光) (1019–1086), who set out to highlight specific historical examples and offer comments to convey Confucian principles in the hope that his own monarch and later rulers would reign with benevolence and refrain from evil.