I have been wanting to write about the Official Secrets Act ever since it was announced in November that an HDB officer had been charged in court for breaching it but refrained from doing so in case my comments would be viewed as subjudice. When Mr Ng Han Yuan was finally sentenced to pay a $2,000 fine in late December, I was away from the country. I am reminded of it again when I read today that Mr Ng had been re-deployed. And I think the topic deserves even greater airing now because a select committee has been set up to explore the issue of deliberate fake news.
What has one to do with the other? Plenty.
They are about the practice of journalism which I will loosely define as the search for the truth, that is, not fake news.
To recap, Mr Ng pleaded guilty to passing confidential information about the impending establishment of a HDB resale portal to a reporter, who then tried to chase the tip-off by canvassing for more information from other parties, including the HDB. Ms Janice Tai of ST was given a “stern warning’’.
I find the episode troubling because the article she was working on was never published. In the past, journalists have been taken to task or invited to a lim kopi session because they had written articles which the government would rather not have made public. And they have held their own or fought the matter.
You can read one veteran journalist’s anecdotes here.
It is an unwritten pact between officialdom and journalists that official confirmation is needed for a tip-off before an article about the government sees the light of day. In this case, according to ST, the journalist had the consent of her supervisors to “chase’’ the tip-off that the HDB officer had given her while they were on a date.
“In the course of checking out the story, Ms Tai approached various parties, including property agents and the Singapore Institute of Surveyors & Valuers (SISV), for their views. She also sent HDB a list of questions. This raised the alarm within the Government about a leak after both SISV and Ms Tai approached them about the story.
“According to Ms Tai, she told Ng she was planning to e-mail questions to HDB officials and others in the private sector to get their views. He noted this and asked her to let him know what their responses were.
“In July, when the sensitive nature of the information became clearer, Straits Times editors decided to hold off on the story till an official announcement was made.’’
You can read ST’s full version of events here:
The above account is normal in the day-to-day operations of journalists. As a journalist, I have been told many times not to chase a story because, among other things, a minister wanted to announce it first. Editors don’t always agree to the request, especially if the matter is already widely known or “in the public domain’’, and some bargaining will take place. We might ask to break the story the day before, or bargain for an even fuller story or exclusive when the announcement is finally made.
In the HDB case, all those unwritten rules were followed, going by the ST report..
I believe most editors take the line that reporters must “report’’ and get to the bottom of any story they are chasing. They are urged to do their jobs to the best of their ability, and leave the editing decisions – including whether to publish/broadcast – to the higher-ups who deal with the political ramifications and what-not. It’s not in the DNA of editors to tell reporters to nip their reporting in the bud, unless editors had already agreed with officials to lay off the story for some reason.
Of course, journalists know about the OSA and how wide and sweeping it is. It is easy for any G agency to cry “OSA” because it seems that anything and everything about the G can be secret information so long as the person giving it and receiving it aren’t authorized to do so.
But work carried on because an OB marker seemed to have been settled between officialdom and journalists. The line was drawn on the publication of information, rather than based on the letter of the law.
Yet the G continued its investigations even after ST decided to hold off the story. Why? Did it get wind that ST would be publishing the story? Despite the editors’ decision to hold off the story, did Ms Tai continue to ask questions about it? ST’s own timeline isn’t clear.
In the light of what has happened, I wouldn’t be surprised if editors and reporters re-think the way they do their work since asking questions or calling for confirmation can land you in breach of the OSA.
In other words, the HDB case has set a new benchmark for the practice of journalism in Singapore. The OB markers have been pushed inwards.
This is so terribly bad.
It would easier for all if the Official Secrets Act was more closely defined so that both officials and journalists are left in no doubt about what is secret and what is not. Is it a secret because very few people know of it? Or is it sensitive information that affects the financial markets or national security? Or both?
During the court case, the prosecutor didn’t dwell on the sensitivity of the information disclosed even though he might have cited its impact on the HDB resale market like potential sellers or buyers withholding their actions. Instead the concern was about giving confidential information that he was not supposed to give.
Rather, the prosecutor said that the HDB had been “significantly inconvenienced’’ by the leak because it had to push forward its announcement to October even though it was slated for launch in January 2018.
I consider this a bad turn of phrase because it implies that the G should not be subject to “inconvenience”. The fact that the announcement had been brought forward also showed that early publication can be made without too much untoward impact. In the usual course of things, a bargain could have been struck for ST to obtain the exclusive in October, or to be given more information than other media if this was intended for wider dissemination. Nothing like this appeared to have happened.
Should Ms Tai have gone to the HDB first, rather than canvass other players for information? Note that Ms Tai’s probing led the SISV to ask questions of the HDB, which must have been surprised or annoyed at the leak. Truth to tell, I have always advised reporters to get as much information from other sources, before going for official information. This is because of a game of “no comment’’ that some officials play, in the hope that with too little information or no confirmation, the reporter will “drop” the story.
I am giving this insight into the profession as practised in Singapore to show that journalists have a mighty tough job extracting information from officialdom. Yes, the OSA (or some form of it) is also used in other jurisdictions, such as the United States. But I echo what lawyer Jack Lee said in a TODAY article about how in contrast to Singapore, the default position in some countries is that “governmental information should be publicly disclosed, and withholding such information is seen as the exception rather than the norm”.
How are we to deal with the phenomenon of deliberate fake news when it is not easy to get real information from the G in the first place?
Or if the mainstream media itself is coy about reporting constraints on its profession? I note, for example, that a second reporter was involved, but whom ST did not name in its article. Nor did ST report, until Mr Ng was charged in November, that it was being investigated or that its reporter had been held overnight in a cell. The media usually doesn’t refrain from reporting that other people are being investigated – and they do so assiduously – so why stop when it’s about itself?
I presume the G knows that this episode will cause, to use a popular phrase, “a chilling effect’’ on journalists. It might well brush this off by saying this is a one-off instance or that “good’’ journalists will know what to do and not to do.
I think the whole episode is regretful because it means that it would be prudent of journalists to wait for G announcements, rather than “scoop’’ it. Such a practice would blunt the inquisitiveness of journalists, especially since a lot of news in Singapore emanates from the G. While this would be convenient for the G as it can schedule its timing of announcements with no disruption of its workings, I don’t think this is what the G wants or should want.
It only reduces the credibility of journalists at a time when good journalism should be supported. The problem in Singapore is not that there is too much fake news, but getting more people to believe that real news is coming out from the duopoly without fear or favour.
I think that when the G talks about fake news, we should also ask whether it is putting more obstacles in the way of obtaining real news or creating a climate in which the process of finding the truth, which is already laborious, is also dangerous.