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Happy World Press Freedom Day from the country that's "very bad" for journalism

Kirsten Han
Kirsten Han
6 min read

World Press Freedom Day falls on May 3 every year. It was proclaimed by the United Nations General Assembly in 1993, and is an annual reminder to celebrate “the fundamental principles of press freedom, to evaluate press freedom around the world, to defend the media from attacks on their independence and to pay tribute to journalists who have lost their lives in the exercise of their profession.”

According to the 2020 World Press Freedom Index produced by Reporters Without Borders, Singapore has slipped seven spots to 158 (out of 180), and has now been reclassified as “very bad” in terms of the press freedom situation.

Being a freelance journalist in Singapore

There’s plenty of reading out there about press freedom in Singapore, most notably Cherian George’s book Freedom from the Press (and you can read Cherian’s accompanying blog too). Last year, CAPE at hosted a talk about press freedom at Yale-NUS with Cherian, Tess Bacalla of the Southeast Asia Press Alliance (the secretariat has sadly since shut down), and myself—you can read their report on the event here.

For today’s special issue, I thought I’d write about my experience as a freelance journalist, which is different from that of a journalist in a local mainstream media outlet, and even from journalists (local or foreign) for the foreign press present in the country. It’s something that I’m asked about fairly often, from young Singaporeans considering journalism as a future career, to people who are just curious about how I manage to pay my bills.

Firstly, the basics: freelance journalists operate like most other freelancers: we don’t have set/regular employers. You can think about it as running a little one-person business, only my product is my writing, be it op-eds, reports, features, essays, etc. I pitch stories to editors of various publications and platforms, and I get paid per story. Rates range widely, from as low as S$100 (or even lower) for a commentary piece to US$1,600 plus expenses for a long-form reported feature (I was supposed to be paid more but the editor decided to cancel the story and this was the kill fee offered). No commissions = no income.

There’s a press accreditation system in Singapore, overseen by the Ministry for Communications and Information. But this only applies to journalists who are formally employed by recognised media organisations.

As a freelance journalist, I’m not able to get a press pass. This means I’m excluded from a lot of government communications with the press corps: I’m not on the mailing list to get government press statements, and I don’t get invited to press conferences (although having a press card doesn’t necessarily mean the government will inform you of a press conference—sometimes only the local media are invited to a presser). Without a press card, I’m not officially recognised as a reporter: I’ve been kicked out of the media gallery at the Supreme Court, chucked out of media huddles at the State Courts, and was once told by a comms officer from the police force that he couldn’t answer my questions because he couldn’t verify if I was a real journalist.

I can get media accreditation for some other events in Singapore—for example, when I reported for a foreign news wire (I was still contracted as a freelancer on a monthly basis, rather than staff), I was able to get accreditation through them for events like the Singapore Airshow, or the Shangri-La Dialogues. But it doesn’t always work out: once, when another international news wire wanted to hire me to cover an official ASEAN event, my application for media accreditation was rejected.

It’s annoying, but doesn’t bother me from day-to-day. There are often workarounds: instead of getting press releases directly, I check government websites and the Facebook pages of various government agencies or ministers. If I’m covering court hearings, I show up early to make sure I get a seat in the public gallery. I send emails to government communications departments with questions, or to offer them the right of reply—I often don’t get responses (or very late responses), but lots of other journalists get this treatment too, so it becomes one more thing about doing journalism in Singapore that needs to be factored in.

In any case, I very rarely find official statements to form the heart of the stories that I cover. There’s always more information, insight, and context that you can find from speaking to people or organisations on the ground. Because I don’t usually cover breaking news, I have the luxury of practising a slower form of journalism than that of peers who work for newspapers and TV networks; I don’t have to react or produce content as quickly as they do, so I have more time for interviews, to dig a little deeper, to shift my focus from events and developments to context and background.

Being a freelancer can also mean less protection: while journalists in traditional newsrooms might be supported by the company’s legal department and other resources in times of trouble, I don’t have access to such resources, since I have no actual employer. While foreign outlets have been known to extract their foreign correspondents from a variety of contexts for a variety of reasons, as a Singaporean and a freelancer I’ll never get extracted by anyone to anywhere, so it’s important that I’m aware of the risk and exposure that I have in the course of my work.

(Interestingly, this also works in the other direction: because I usually don’t have a local editor who can be rung up and intimidated, I don’t have to put up with policing or censorship from editors. I’ve had editors contacted about my work before, but because they weren’t local mainstream media editors, the reaction has been more akin to a shrug than anything. And because I’m a Singaporean, I don’t have the worry that foreign reporters have of losing work visas and getting kicked out of the country.)

Thankfully, I think there isn’t much danger of me being physically attacked or murdered for my work—which is a very real worry for journalists elsewhere in the world.

Instead, I have to put up with online harassment and trolling, including the potential of getting doxxed—it’s come close. I also have to be very aware of legal repercussions like defamation, contempt of court, and POFMA orders, as well as potential police investigations that might involve the confiscation of electronic devices (which has implications in terms of the security of communication and the identities of sources who may want to remain anonymous).

So, what next?

Now that I’m back to full-time freelancing, reporting, and writing, I’m back to the pitch-and-commission cycle to earn an income. But I’m also hoping to use this newsletter as an experiment in not just journalism, but also relationship- and trust-building. And since the UN says that World Press Freedom Day is also “a date to encourage and develop initiatives in favour of press freedom”, I think it’s a good time to talk a little more about my plans and hopes for We, the Citizens in this issue.

Unlike news outlets and organisations, this newsletter is a personal project, and there’s no need to conform to pre-set style guides or institutional processes. Instead, I only need to focus on these main considerations: how can I, and this newsletter be useful? How can this contribute to public discourse? How can I amplify important perspectives, particularly those that might not get much space elsewhere? How can I use my platform for good? How can this be a space for not just independent journalism, but also to build trust and confidence in independent journalism?

With We, the Citizens, there are no predetermined ways for these questions to be answered, and anything can be tried. That’s why I’ve been doing giveaways, so reader-sponsors can do nice things for other readers. It’s also why I started a Telegram group that I advertised through the newsletter, so people can connect with others to discuss issues or just be there for each other during the partial lockdown. And, in response to the results of the survey I did a little while back, I’ll also be using this newsletter to deliver reported features, plus the analysis and commentary that many of the respondents asked for.

It’s a new platform for me, and an experiment in many ways. If it works out, it could be a great way to build community, trust, and important conversations about Singapore. That’s not a bad goal to have on World Press Freedom Day.

Thank you very much for being a Milo Peng Funder! If you like, you can help me get the word out by forwarding this email, buying someone a gift subscription, or sharing the newsletter.

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