As civil society and political activism slowly rev up, with different people following different impulses, at some point somebody is going to find himself working at cross-purposes to someone else. We may have reached that point.
Filmmaker Martyn See (right) had a letter published in the Straits Times, 9 December 2010. It asked a pertinent question that made entirely good sense from his point of view and his concerns. As I read it, however, I couldn’t help wondering if he might have single-handedly gummed up Singapore Democratic Party’s communication strategy:
In last Saturday’s report (‘The battle for eyeballs is on’), we learnt that political parties have been using the new media.
The article noted that since the ban on party political films was lifted last year, ‘parties are able to produce and disseminate videos so long as they are factual and objective’.
Indeed, some opposition parties have posted politically themed videos online, with the Singapore Democratic Party chalking up 47 videos on its YouTube channel so far. My own check on the People’s Action Party website reveals the ruling party has posted more than 30 videos.
But Section 14(1) of the Films Act states that ‘every film in the possession of any person shall be submitted to the Board (of Film Censors) without any alteration or excision for the purpose of censorship’.
Earlier this year, I had complied with the above by submitting my video recording of a speech by political detainee Dr Lim Hock Siew to the censors. The film is now gazetted as a prohibited film because the Minister deemed it to be ‘against public interests’. I was also told to remove the film from YouTube and from my blog, which I duly complied.
My other film, Zahari’s 17 Years (2006), an interview with political detainee Said Zahari, has remained banned.
Given the Government’s dim view of films and videos with political content, I would like to know what is the position of the relevant authorities with regard to the production and direct uploading of videos onto the Internet, particularly those of political parties.
See was pointing out the discrepancy between the treatment of his films and the way the government has turned a blind eye to parties uploading videos onto their websites.
Once published, the Media Development Authority (MDA) will be obliged to reply. It will be interesting to see what position they take.
On the one hand they can say that in See’s case, he himself submitted the films to the MDA, and so naturally, the MDA had to give him a decision. The political parties on the other hand took their own risk by uploading directly without first consulting the MDA. It’s not as if the MDA has allowed them to flout the law; it’s just that they chose to risk prosecution.
But of course, this would only be a half-answer. It would beg the question why the MDA turned a blind eye since videos had been going up onto these party websites for a while now.
Alternatively, the MDA could say from now on, they are going to enforce the law strictly, and the parties will have to submit all videos before uploading. I think most citizens will consider this a highly retrograde step. Worse yet, the MDA can henceforth adopt a fast-track policy for the People’s Action Party (PAP), clearing their videos within 5 minutes (and even retroactively for existing videos) while taking forever with opposition parties’ videos.
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There is one other angle to consider: What constitutes a “party political film” within the meaning of Section 33 of the Films Act? It was pretty obvious from the enactment of Section 33 a decade or so ago that this is a very slippery animal. However, so long as the authorities didn’t have to grapple often with the definition in real life, they can pretend that they know what they are doing, but now if compelled by See’s letter to vet films by the dozens, some from a party “that must be obeyed” and others from the opposition, absurdities and contradictions will surface.
I suspect this has been See’s objective all along: to make the authorities eat the pudding they have baked.
The statute itself defines it thus:
“party political film” means a film —
(a) which is an advertisement made by or on behalf of any political party in Singapore or any body whose objects relate wholly or mainly to politics in Singapore, or any branch of such party or body; or
(b) which is made by any person and directed towards any political end in Singapore;
In March 2009, the government announced that they would tweak the definition of a party political film. Hereafter, they said, any video that merely recorded an offline event without any distortion or dramatisation, would get exception from the ban.
Singapore passed an amended law on Monday to ease an 11-year-old ban on films that promote a politician or political party, but the amendments also introduce restrictions on dramatized political videos.
The relaxation of rules on political films was meant to keep up with the spread of video and other news content on the Internet, but these had to be “held in accordance with the law,” Lui Tuck Yew, a junior minister at the Ministry of Information, Communications and the Arts, told parliament.
The amended Films Act allows films that are factual and objective, and do not dramatize or present a distorted picture of politics in Singapore, Lui said.
“Films with animation and dramatization and distort what is real or factual will be disallowed, as the intent of the amendments is to ensure that these films do not undermine the seriousness of political debate,” he said.
— Reuters, 23 March 2009, Singapore eases law on political films. Link.
But how much editing, how many fabricated elements would constitute distortion and dramatisation? This has never been made clear.
In May 2009, a committee headed by retired judge Richard Magnus was formed to “to assess if political films are suitable for public viewing instead of leaving it to government censors alone.” (Channel NewsAsia, 26 May 2009, Independent committee formed to assess political films. Link.)
Unless the MDA can deflect See’s implicit demand, this committee will soon have its work cut out for it. A quick look at the PAP’s website revealed at least two videos that would arguably fall outside the relaxed rules. One, titled BTPN market visit, uploaded 31 August 2010, consisted of a series of still photographs, showing PAP leaders in a walkabout in Bishan and Toa Payoh North. The soundtrack consisted of a voice-over (an interview?) saying things like “I get a very strong feeling [from residents] of satisfaction” and how there is “a positive mood of the economy.”
If the spirit of the relaxed rules still bar selectivity (“distortion” and “dramatization” in the government’s own words) then might the selection process involved in choosing which still pictures to include in the video and what scripted (?) should be in the voice-over violate that spirit?
If the MDA or Richard Magnus’ committee chooses to say that the voice-over merely depicted sincerely held opinions, and therefore was not distortion, the question that naturally follows will be why Said Zahari’s and Lim Hock Siew’s sincerely held opinions were considered distortions. The MDA had banned these two films made by See on the grounds that the views expressed therein were distortions of history.
Any attempt by the MDA and Richard Magnus’ committee to insist that the PAP’s videos are true and See’s are not will effectively paint them into a corner, making these bureaucrats arbiters of truth and untruth, a very Orwellian scenario.
As another example, there is also a YP Recruitment video (English) added 1 November 2009 to the PAP’s website. I believe “YP” stands for Young PAP. All you need is a ten-second look, and you’ll see that it consists entirely of edited material with a very clear advertising message, not straightforward footage of an offline event. What is a recruitment video if not an advertisement? But advertising is the litmus test of whether a film is a party political film or not — it’s there in the very words of the Films Act (cited above).
If the MDA says they have not vetted them before, well, they’ll have to vet them now under the glare of publicity. If they say these had been vetted, then they’ll have to explain how it is that such fabricated videos fall within the approvable scope, and allow opposition parties to do likewise.
A further possibility: The MDA may say, oh these aren’t political films at all, even though they were on a party website, because they were not “advertisements” within the meaning of the Films Act. In that case, it begs the big question all over again: What constitutes a party political film?
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Regardless whichever answer MDA gives regarding party political films, the matter will bounce back to See’s original question regarding Section 14(1). The law says that all films, political or not, must be submitted for vetting. Were they? Why weren’t they? Why didn’t the MDA notice it?
And bounce up to the elephant-in-the-room question: Why do we have such absurd laws that try to maintain media control in the internet age?