Mainstream media ‘a responsible player, but doesn’t excuse everything Govt does’

SINGAPORE — While the mainstream media is “not a free-for-all”, neither is it the “heavily-controlled media that some critics caricature it to be”, said Deputy Prime Minister Tharman Shanmugaratnam yesterday.

Writing on Facebook, Mr Tharman said: “That’s not how things are in Singapore — the media doesn’t wait around for instructions, and it doesn’t excuse everything government does.”

He added: “The mainstream media is what I regard as serious-minded, responsible players in an evolving Singapore democracy — helping to take it forward, but airing views in a way that avoids fragmenting society. That’s not an easy responsibility, because the ability of the media to divide people is a risk everywhere.”

Mr Tharman was elaborating on comments he made during a question-and-answer session with the 1,500-strong audience after the Nanyang Technological University Majulah Lecture last Thursday.

Responding to a question from the floor on whether it was important “to open up the media landscape” and have a mainstream media that is “not controlled” by the Government, Mr Tharman had noted that Singaporeans “know some things are more likely to come up on page four than on page one”. He also added that Singaporeans are not fools, and they do not read the mainstream media blindly.

Mr Tharman reiterated yesterday that the mainstream media “carries all the important news of the day, including both sides of the political debate”. Singaporeans pick it up, and “read things and discuss them freely”, he said.

“So blaming the mainstream media for electoral losses is not a good strategy — it doesn’t square anymore with the reality of a public that reads, follows issues and thinks more critically,” he added.

Singapore Democratic Party chief Chee Soon Juan had partly blamed the mainstream media for his loss to People’s Acstion Party candidate Murali Pillai. Among other things, he said the media tried to “dredge” up events from 20 years ago, referring to accusations he had ousted opposition veteran Chiam See Tong from the SDP.

Adding that the mainstream media “does a better job” in advancing Singaporeans’ collective interests, Mr Tharman noted that the situation is different in a few other Asian countries “where the media has added to a divisiveness in society not seen in a long time”. He said: “Even in some of the mature Western democracies, people are segregating themselves into media bubbles of their own — both in the mainstream and social media — and public trust in the media is now at an all-time low.”

He added: “These are not the things that Reporters Without Borders looks at, but they matter to the quality of democracy in any society, and are worrying many others.”

The audience member who posed the question on the mainstream media had cited the Reporters Without Borders 2017 World Press Freedom Index, which ranked Singapore 151st out of 180 countries.

Mr Tharman stressed the need to ensure the mainstream media remain as “responsible players” and help to move democracy forward.

“We should hope too that the middle in the social media gets stronger, for Singapore’s good,” he added. FARIS MOKHTAR

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