What is online citizen journalism? According to media practitioner Rajan (2007), it is the act of self-motivated citizens taking up proactive roles in the process of researching, reporting, analyzing and publishing of news contents over the Internet. Its existence is also aimed to seek for independent yet trustworthy and expansive of relevant articles that a democracy requires.
However, Perlmutter and Hamilton (2007) have raised up that due to the rapidemergence of online citizen journalism, many countries including Singapore, are now facing challenges of coming up with a flawless censorship mechanism for online news platforms, to effectively control or suppress the releasing or accessing of information which may be deemed sensitive, offensive, distasteful, misleading or inconvenient to the general body of people, without depriving them from human rights and freedom of speech over the Internet (Zuchora, 2010).
Thus, to highlight the need for improvisation to the current “light touch” control mechanism for online citizen journalism, we will first start off by reviewing the effectiveness of the current media policies that are in place, followed by exploring some examples, mainly from omy.sg and stomp.sg, to illustrate the current online citizen journalism trends and overall growth. Next, we will also present responses gathered from our survey conducted with 120 people of ages 13 to 49 and omy.sg content Producer Raymond Foong Kim Ben, sharing their opinions towards the censorship mechanisms for online citizen journalism in Singapore.
To date, the Media Development Authority of Singapore (MDA), under the provision of the government, has passed on several policies and guidelines for local media players in creating clear operating boundaries, such that the four main aims of (1) protecting the young, (2) upholding of the community values, (3) ensuring sustained stability of racial and religious harmony and (4) the safeguarding of national and public interest are met. The relevant policies and legislation that are applicable to the current local Internet scene are Undesirable Publications Act, Sedition Act, Defamation Act, Internal Security Act, Broadcasting Act, Internet Code of Practices and the Computer Misuse Act.
Though tightly controlled by various mechanisms, there are still areas for improvisation to the online policies in order to ensure that censorship remains effective in the fast changing and rapid growing Citizen-journalism era.
Instill similar controls over TV news to online news
For instance, unlike the Free-to-air TV Code which specifies the news treatment requirements for news programmes on the television media, there are currently no similar comprehensive policies to regulate on (1) the way news should be presented, (2) what kind of news should be disallowed on the Internet, and (3) how citizen journalists are identified, other than the Internet Code of Practices to advice on the general content on the Internet. This in turn, gives the “purely-online” news mediums like stomp.sg, omy.sg, asiaone.com and razortv.sg large spaces for exploration, which may in turn result in a bombardment of unreliable articles on the Internet.
Furthermore, prohibitions that were instilled to the television and newspaper medias, mainly “morbid, sensational, or alarming details not essential to factual reporting should be avoided” and “reports on sexual crimes must not carry information which could lead to the identification of such victims” were all subverted on the citizen-journalism based websites.
Photo disclosure of identity for minors under 18 (refer to Appendix A) and complaints of other ethnic and religious groups’ behaviours (refer to Appendixes B and C) were published in high volumes without identifying who exactly are the uploaders for such citizen-journalism (CJ) news articles. Anonymous comments that contain vulgarities, racial discrimination,sexual contents and provoking remarks (refer to Appendix G) were also largely published on discussion columns that are bundled with the CJ articles.
Not only that, adapting from the Agenda setting theory (McCombs, 1972), the media also makes use of such controversial contents to attract readerships (refer to Appendixes D, E and F) in order to generate revenues. These articles are highly lacking of credibility as contents are twisted and sensationalized to capture the attention of the browsers. They were also presented in a biased and single-sided view, mainly quoting solely the uploaders’ speeches, thus not being able to represent the voices of the public.
More importantly, no verification of actuality for the mentioned incidents is being conducted, thus encouraging more untrue or fabricated news stories by anonymous identities to be published on the Internet.
For instance, the article in Appendix F states “M1 forces customers to give it high rating by making low ratings valid,” which could be a planned effort of other telecommunication providers to intentionally defame its competitor for self gain, since registration is simple and real identification are not required in both the registration process and for the news bylines.
In another case (Appendix H), numerous photographs of the world’s impactful events like the attempted shooting incident in America were published widely on the CJ websites. However, majority of such restricted contents were seldom widely distributed to the general public, which may imply that such reports could be the work of a media practitioner, forging his identity as a commoner to share such restricted contents, or for the purpose of spreading sensitive messages, without being penalized for abusing his powers as a media practitioner.
Thus, as observed from the above examples, a “light-touch” self-regulatory approach for Internet content regulations may not feasible or as effective in safeguarding the nation and public’s interests, as online media players are often caught in a dilemma between the moral values and ethics of a media practitioner, and the company’s monetary concerns. Thus, instead of having them to be indecisive over what contents to be omitted, a standardized plan of news handling may be what the online news industry is lacking now.
Tight controls to be instilled given high Internet penetration rates
On the other hand, based on the Infocomm usage statistics released by IDA and marketing research company Comscore (2009), it was found out that 35% of the local households own at least 1 computer or 48.6% for at least 2 or more computers at home in year 2009, accounting to 3,370,000 unique internet users or an internet penetration rate of 72.4%.
Out of which, the age groups of 15 to 24 and 25 to 34 are the most frequent users of the Internet. It was also found out that the leading activities conducted over the Internet were instant messaging, entertainment and news, which are equivalent to an average of 254 pages of content per month, or 24 percents of the total minutes spent on the Internet.
Furthermore, the research conducted over 120 individuals of different ages, also showed that 99.6%, or 119 of the respondents visited at least one news-related site recently, with 78%, or 94 of the respondents spending 11 or more minutes on those sites. Out of which, 56%, or 67 respondents visit such sites at least once or more in a week.
Thus, given such extensive and frequent usage of the Internet for news information, it was believed that the Internet would cause huge impacts on its users, in the way they think or perceive a particular event, trend or object.
Pfau (2007), theassistant professor of Communication at the University of Minnesota, also mentioned that, “attitudinal effects of media use often involve the way that media usageand attitudes interconnect, and that one’s opinions or emotions about an attitude object may be impaired due to media use.”
Adding on, citizen journalism websites like “stomp.sg” could capture a considerable 87,458 page views with 380 comments in a single article within 6 days of publication (refer to Appendix I), which such figures are near to the readership and circulation rates of our evening dailies, Shinmin Daily and Lianhe Wanbao, it further proved that such CJ websites have strong influences and attraction over its viewers.
And as technology capabilities leap tremendously over the years, the demand of spaces for public opinions are expected to increase, thus encouraging CJ websites like stomp.sg and omy.sg to tap on resources of social networks like Facebook and Twitter, in order to provide a two-way communication platform for both the users and providers, thus forming an integrated communication channel.
Such way of communication is especially popular amongst the young generations, as they are able to gather large support groups for a common goal in a very short time-span. This phenomenon was further supported by the survey results as 44% of the respondents visit CJ websites for online discussions and interaction with the users.
Thus, given a multi-racial and multi-ethnical country like Singapore, it is especially crucial and vital for the local government to instill a thorough and sensible censorship mechanism in order to ensure that the integrated communication tools are not misused, especially for propaganda purposes.
Suppress the formation of anti-social groups
For instance, the recent “Anti-Singapore action (Appendix K)” was a good example to show. The incident first started bubbling attention when the secondary student created a Facebook group called “Singapore Sucked”, which its hyperlink was shared amongst numerous users of omy.sg and stomp.sg through the discussion boards and self-help posting boards concurrently. The group capacity started growing, reaching 2,000 fans in just hours, as the secondary student posted sexy photos of MediaCorp artiste Jeanette Aw and ex-artistes Felicia Chin and Fiona Xie, insulting them for being “xenophilic”, which refers to admiration of foreigners or of anything foreign, instead of being proud of their own unique Singapore culture.
Not only that, seditious remarks towards Singapore’s National Service (NS) and education policies were also made, which very much aided this social group to be featured in the CJ websites’ headlines column, gaining much attention from both the public and the media.
Another example would be a racist rant by a 24-year-old Singaporean on his web-blog (Appendix J). The incident was initially made known to only his friends, until a citizen journalism website Tomorrow.sg blew off the whole incident.
The Singaporean described the man whom he met in the MRT as “smelling like he didn’t showered in years” and illustrated him by “wearing some really scary dirty clothes.” The CJ website duplicated sentences and keywords from the blog, combining several comments, and republished it on their main page, which then caused a public outburst amongst the browsers, especially the Indians in Singapore.
Thus, through the two mentioned examples, we are able to see the importance for a policy regulating strict moderations for such sensitive contents that would wound racial or religious feelings of individuals, as large anti-support groups can be formed easily through the power of such CJ websites. Moreover, gathering responses from the survey conducted, 82% of the interviewed public responded that, in comparison to traditional medias, online CJ medias have a wide freedom in choosing the information to be disseminated, and that more than half of them (54%) felt that there should be tighter controls over news contents that are presented on the Internet.
Content producer of omy.sg, Raymond Foong Kim Ben also raised up that “there are actually simple terms and conditions for the CJ websites users to follow. However, many chose not to, as by publishing these contents do not inflict their interests directly. Thus a tight control would be wise.”
Furthermore, given the media as a two-step flow of communication (Lazarsfeld, 1944), the information disseminated by these CJ mediums are often believed to be channeled or “broadcasted” through opinion leadership. Such leaders will make use of the interactive media, to “explain and diffuse the content” based on his personal viewpoint, in order to gather supporters of similar thinking, interests or personality. And when these anti-supporters gather and make massive negative remarks over the affecting party, disputes occur and this will ultimately cause strong disaffections and hatred among the different racial or religious groups.
As such, the “light-touch approach” only served as a “loophole”, for both the media practitioners and opinion leaders to gain advantage of. Singapore is still not ready to welcome a environment that has wide freedom, and that strong control mechanisms needs to be instilled to ensure sustained stability and the media continues to serve by educating and informing the public.
Thus, below are some of the suggested areas of improvisations to the current online policies.
Suggestions to be made to the current policies
Firstly,strict verification checks should be made compulsory when users are registering for an account in the CJ websites. Actual names are also to be displayed in the bylines of the news contents. This is to ensure that information uploaders can be easily identified when discrepancies over the published content arise. Take the former mediacorptv.sg (2008) as an example, the chances of a single user creating multi-accounts was completely eradicated as the system would reject applications with fake NRIC number and/or birth-date when verification are done across the national database. Users are also careful with what was being typed in the forum, as identification was made easy to the moderators.
By taking this step, we can also encourage responsible sharing of information, and prevent fabricated information by anonymous identities, especially defamation attempts amongst organizations or social groups, to be published on the CJ websites.
Secondly, the news control mechanism for television in the “Free-to-air TV Programme Code” should be made applicable to the online news contents as well, in order to safeguard the interests of the nation and the public, especially the young.
Such measures will eradicate news that may inflict privacy, or contents that may cause social disharmony from online publication, as photo disclosures of minors under 18 are disallowed, and commentaries over ethnic or religious groups’ behaviours and explicit contents of sex and violence, are expected to be handled with extreme care and caution.
Moreover, learning from China’s Internet regulations, the Internet content providers (ICPs) are also required to prevent the “appearance of politically or socially objectionable content through both the automated and manual means”. Any ICPs who fail to meet the requirements will have their licenses revoked. This measure will instill strong pressure on the industry players, as CJ contents disseminated are now required to be of high reliability and moral integrity.
Thirdly, similar to Taiwan’s Internet regulations (Chu, 2007), the CJ websites are required to label the different sections or web pages with label codes(S for sex content, V for violence content etc) in order to provide the users witha more informed choice.
Minors under 16 will also be forced to denial of access to news contents that have explicit revealing of body parts, detailed description to cases of violence or any religious and racial discussion that requires high maturity.
Though such measure can only restrict contents produced by local websites, the authority can however strengthen the Internet filtering system and family access networks (FAN) as well, in order to aid parents in better control over their children’s explorations for undesirable contents in the cyberspace. For instance, webpage access is denied if the filtration system detects keywords like “Sex”, “gore” and “pervert”.
Not only that, an automated list for the websites browsed will also be generated online via the providers’ secured channels to aid parents in effective tracking of their children’s movements on the Internet.
Fourthly, the CJ websites are to come up with an offensive wordlist to prevent any extreme word usages. This is because as compared to the past, the young generations nowadays, are now more open, daring and active to what they say in CJ websites and online discussion boards over religious, racial or ethnical issues.
Thus as media gatekeepers, the CJ websites can ensure that all the news contents or comments published are not being sensationalized or made hurtful to any party, by restricting any extreme words, phrases or vulgarities such as “burn in hell” and “hong kees” to be published. Also, manual checks must also be conducted by moderators to ensure that CJ news are factual, objective and not abusive, thus maintaining social harmony in Singapore.
In conclusion, given the increasingly high penetration rates and readership of citizen journalism news websites1in Singapore, it is undeniable that they have become an important and popular platform amongst Singaporeans to share, comment or judge over social, religious, racial, political and daily-life issues.
And as more new media services are being introduced and become readily available, online news websites, especially CJ websites, are very likely to turn into the “leading delivery infrastructure for mass media content” (MDA, 2010) in future. Thus, instead of self-regulation, there is a need for Singapore to develop a strong Internet censorship mechanisms, to ensure that the information collected are highly credible and objective, in order to protect the interests of different religious and racial groups, and more importantly, the young.
More importantly, for the fact that the Internet contents can be archived and retrieved indefinitely, it is important that these strong censorship mechanisms are put in place, so as to allow the current information collected be of important reference sources for the future generations.
1High readership rates of citizen journalism news websites: According to mypaper’s report “The Rise and Rise of STOMP” (refer to Appendix M), in November 2010 alone, STOMP.sg had gathered a total of 45 million page hits.
Written as part of the assignment for Ngee Ann Polytechnic’s Media Ethics, Law and Policy module.