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Will Singapore’s ban on political blogs work?

Apr 12, 20063 mins
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Despite a ban on political blogs and podcasts by individuals during Singapore’s next general election, observers are watching to see what, if any, role these new forms of media are going to play.

“That really is one of the big questions, one of the big unknowns in the coming election,” said Cherian George, an associate professor at Singapore’s Nanyang Technological University and author of the book “Contentious Journalism and the Internet: Towards Democratic Discourse in Malaysia and Singapore.”

Print and television media is closely regulated in Singapore. The popularity of blogs and other forms of media had led some to speculate whether these might play an important role in the next election, which is expected to be called during the next few months.

Those expectations appeared dashed earlier this month, when Dr. Balaji Sadasivan, Singapore’s senior minister of state for information, communications and the arts, told the country’s Parliament that political podcasts and blogs would not be permitted during the election period.

Balaji’s comments brought criticism from Reporters Without Borders, a press advocacy group based in Paris. “Once again the Singapore authorities are showing their determination to prevent the holding of a genuinely democratic debate on the Internet,” it said last week.

Singaporean officials see things differently. The regulations that restrict political podcasts and blogs are intended to ensure a “factual and objective” discourse during the election, Balaji said. “In a free-for-all Internet environment, where there are no rules, political debates could easily degenerate into an unhealthy, unreliable and dangerous discourse flush with rumors and distortions to mislead and confuse the public,” he said.

Balaji’s remarks will not put an end to political discourse among individual Singaporeans, George said. “My hunch is that many Singaporeans will continue to express themselves quite freely on discussion boards … and even in their blogs,” he said.

“The ones who may be cautious are those who had any plans of doing something in a more organized fashion,” he said.

Despite the ban, many aspects of the government’s restrictions on the use of political podcasts and blogs are unclear, according to George. This leaves open the possibility that some users could try to test the policy’s limits, he said, noting that Singapore’s government does not chase down every individual “who may be straying out of line.”

“It’s partly a numbers game. If only a very small number of readily identifiable individuals flout the rule, then it would be easy for the government to crack down on them and make an example of them,” George said, adding this would have a “chilling effect” for the future.

However, If more bloggers are involved, the situation changes and the government is unlikely to crack down on individual bloggers, George said. Due to Singapore’s small population – around 4.5 million – even 20 political bloggers would be considered a large number, he said.

“The government itself would recognize that it’s losing too much moral authority if it went after 20 individuals,” George said. “It’s just not the way [the government has] done business in the past.”