After Egypt, now with tsunami news, CNA again a disgrace

The second week of February, when Egyptian protests at Tahrir Square in Cairo reached its peak, I had plenty of time to surf among international news channels for updates. Al Jazeera’s coverage was good, with lots of on-the-ground reports. BBC was good too, managing to interview many key players, from whom one could get a sense what each of their negotiating positions were. As for CNN, I thought they dwelled too much on questions like What’s Washington going to do now? How will this affect America? And most annoyingly, How will this affect Israel?

Flicking from one channel to another, I often had to go past Channel NewsAsia (CNA). On two occasions, I stopped for a while to see for myself how they were reporting the Egyptian uprising compared to the others. It was pathetic.  Their reports were not timely, nor had they depth. Where Al Jazeera and the BBC had leading figures like Mohamed El Baradei and Amr Moussa on camera, together with regular on-scene interviews or phone interviews with the protestors themselves, and even CNN had the Facebook organiser Wael Ghonim, all CNA had was an unknown lecturer in Middle Eastern Studies from some institute or other in Singapore giving a thoroughly theoretical take, not on unfolding events, but on the background. And in a stiff studio setting.

I felt shame. If tiny Qatar can create a news powerhouse like Al Jazeera, why do we have a lump of buffalo dung like CNA?

Actually, I know why. When Qatar decided to launch Al Jazeera, the first thing they did was to hire the best and brightest they could get from the world. Whole departments were poached from BBC and Australian Broadcasting, bringing with them talent, experience, contacts and most important of all, the ethics and courage of professional broadcast journalism. Qatari leaders had the foresight to know that if their dream of balancing the Western perspective of BBC and CNN with an Arab perspective were to be realised, they had to give their start-up the freedom to acquire a reputation for honesty and integrity.

When Singapore launched CNA, as I well recall, the announced mission — OK, maybe I was foolish to even half-believe it — was to bring the Asian perspective to international news, a kind of Al Jazeera for Asia. It was also the time when there were dreams of making Singapore a media centre for the region. We painted CNA as a station for Asia and perhaps the world, not just Singapore.  Yet, the Singapore government could not let go of its fear that independent news reporting would not paint them as saints, so unlike at Al Jazeera, only People’s Action Party loyalists need apply.  As for the dream of making Singapore a media centre, it was abandoned when foreign journalists refused to work under our licence conditions.  The only thing we’ve half-succeeded at was to bundle CNA into various cable offerings abroad; you can tune to CNA in many hotels.

The result today: We now have a disgracefully low quality product being sold around the world. Instead of carrying news from the Asian perspective to the world, all it does is to show our government up as a petty dictatorship (which I don’t mind) but also to show Singaporeans up as a boot-licking, uncritical, insular people that have resigned ourselves to such a propaganda machine.

Years on, CNA is still serving their masters. The Singapore Democratic Party, for example, is systematically excluded from what little exposure they give to opposition politics in Singapore. Read this, this and this.

* * * * *

This weekend, the bad news is the Richter 8.9 earthquake off the coast of Miyagi prefecture of Japan that produced a tsunami that was 10 metres high in places. It is the seventh most powerful earthquake ever recorded, the fifth most powerful within the last century. The Aceh earthquake of December 2004 which also produced a devastating tsunami was the third most powerful.

Saturday afternoon, when I had some time to check for the latest news online, I could see that the chief headlines concerned the rapidly rising number of casualties including the fear that 10,000 people are unaccounted for in the port town of Minamisanriku (normal population 17,500), and the increasingly serious problems with two nuclear power stations. An explosion took place at one earlier in the day and fears of a nuclear meltdown have been mooted.

By evening, when I was at my father’s place, I wanted an update. All we had was CNA an so I turned to it for the eleven o’clock news.

They had a reporter reporting from Tokyo about how transport systems in the capital city were paralysed last night and people walked for hours to get home. This topic was already covered on last night’s news; it is being covered again tonight. No other news agency with any self-respect is making “walking home” such a big news story (or any news story at all) when people are dying.

CNA then followed that up with reports from Changi airport about flights cancelled and how passengers were inconvenienced.

Thirdly, they had an earth scientist on air to explain what causes tsunamis. To soak up the time, he then had to field about four questions from the host repeatedly asking him whether tsunamis could be predicted — as if this was the burning issue at the moment.

In the entire news bulletin, almost nothing was mentioned about the areas where the earthquake was most severe and the tsunami most devastating (i.e. the Sendai area). There was hardly any footage, no on-the-spot reporting, no casualty figures, nothing about how victims are putting up. OK, to be fair there were a few seconds showing people queuing up to get food and drinking water at one shop.

Not a word about 10,000 people missing from Minamisanriku. Not even about rescue teams struggling to get to the worst areas.

Amazingly, not a word too was said about the nuclear plants with overheating cores, or the hurried evacuations (that I learnt about online), at first 3 km radius, then 10 km, and now 20 km. . .  suggesting that the situation is probably out of control and may be becoming critical. To CNA, it is apparently not news.

What was news was how horrid it was that middle-class Singaporeans were stuck at the airport unable to go on holiday.

I was so disgusted, I wanted to throw a slipper at the television set, in the good ol’ Arab tradition of expressing contempt.

36 Responses to “After Egypt, now with tsunami news, CNA again a disgrace”


  1. 1 Mack 13 March 2011 at 02:49

    ‘show Singaporeans up as a boot-licking, uncritical, insular people that have resigned ourselves to such a propaganda machine’

    Aren’t we?!

  2. 2 Calrson 13 March 2011 at 03:12

    Well, we deserve what kind of government we vote for.

  3. 3 Ponder Stibbons 13 March 2011 at 03:17

    I had no idea that the original intention was to make Singapore a media centre. The very thought is laughable.

    • 4 Jeff 13 March 2011 at 14:12

      But entirely consistent with other Government “Scholars'” “brilliant” ideas. Or perhaps our Minister in charge of “forecasting” had the idea?

  4. 5 wordcrass 13 March 2011 at 09:12

    i cant agree with you alex. the ‘news with an asian perspective’ makes me puke. i think they live in a different world. maybe there is a also a different asia in that dimension.

  5. 6 Jackson Tan 13 March 2011 at 10:01

    In an Australian university I went to, they offered an incredible list of cable news channel on the campus TV network, ranging from BBC News to Al Jazeera to CNA.

    There were over a hundred channels, all listed on an index page. That is, all except CNA. The reason I knew about it was because it was the next channel to BBC and I pressed the previous channel button by accident.

    In all likelihood, it was a mistake that CNA got left out. I didn’t bother informing the IT department though. Better that way.

    And I never switched to that channel again. Except by accident, of course.

  6. 7 Chua Thomas 13 March 2011 at 10:45

    Is Al Jazeera still available in Singapore? Thought it was removed from mio TV?

    CNA does a good job in propping up a pretty dictatorship. That’s their primary objective. The rest is just PR hubris.

    • 8 Vernon Voon 15 March 2011 at 17:31

      Let’s see them do so again in the 2011 GE.

      • 9 Jeff 15 March 2011 at 19:23

        Haven’t you been paying attention? The fix is already in: the new election boundaries have been gerrymandered so that no matter what PAP do, they’re guaranteed 67 of the 84 seats, even if every Singaporean who can votes against them. And if they bully enough people, and make the Opposition look foolish enough thanks to their monopoly on mainstream media, it shouldn’t be too hard for them to pick up 12-15 more seats. Add in the two that are permanent sops to the Opposition in the name of showing the world that we have a “democracy,” and we’re back up to 84 seats again.

        They may be lousy, insensitive cronies who care first and foremost about themselves, but they do know how to do the maths.

      • 10 yawningbread 15 March 2011 at 21:45

        You wrote: no matter what PAP do, they’re guaranteed 67 of the 84 seats

        Huh? The new total is 87 seats, not 84. And where did the figure “67” come from?

      • 11 Jeff 15 March 2011 at 22:09

        Sorry if I’m wrong about 87 vs. 84; that’s the note I made after reading a Today! article a few days ago.

        The note I took from the article said there would be 17 SSCs this time, leaving the remainder in GRCs that are designed to be PAP wins.

        I’ll go find my source again; if I wrote incorrectly, deep apologies; feel free to delete the entire rant.

        Maybe I’m the one who can’t do maths tonight.😛

  7. 12 Cynical Investor 13 March 2011 at 11:12

    Question of money.

    S’pore tries to do it on the cheap. CNN, elpJ, BBC have their teams, CNA relies on partner stations in SE Asia and freelanceers in SE Asia and the rest of the world.

    Agree bad for image of S’pore.

  8. 13 ST 13 March 2011 at 11:27

    Well what would one expect if the successive heads of CNA / Mediacorp News in its 12 year history are better known as talk show hosts (such as Talking Point) than field reporters? I see a lack of commitment to resources. Why is the Tokyo chief only seen reporting from a studio? That said, having a team on the field and live satellite transmission costs good money. It’s obviously more economical to buy footage but it tends to be stale by then unless one is not watching cable or internet news…

  9. 14 Jeff 13 March 2011 at 13:01

    So true; it’s impossible to understate the competence and relevance of CNA nowadays. If they started out wanting to build a showcase for how PAP really perform, they’re succeeding, I’m afraid.

    They remind me of nothing so much as a 1960s low-power backwoods-American TV station’s parochialism matched with Korean Central News Agency’s objectivity, relevance and candour. If one were to look for a pin with which to pop the myth of Singaporean competence, it is hard to imagine finding one more damningly effective than Channel “News” “Asia.”

  10. 15 lin 13 March 2011 at 13:37

    didn’t manage to catch CNA coverage on the Egyptian uprising, were they trying to provide a context?

  11. 17 chazza boags 13 March 2011 at 15:54

    ‎”I felt shame. If tiny Qatar can create a news powerhouse like Al Jazeera, why do we have a lump of buffalo dung like CNA?”

    what an insult to the functional utility of buffalo dung!

  12. 18 Shamil 13 March 2011 at 16:05

    Although I agree that CNA brings nothing new to ghe table. I must add that Aljazeera was lauched by some maverick from the Qatar royalty had an explicit agreement that they could not report on Qatar’s regime. And although it is the most popular news channel in the middle east it is actually banned by most of the countries there. Ppl just access it by satellite tv. So they too had to compromise on news coverage/freedom of information wrt Qatar. So if u want to compare CNA with Aljazeera in that respect both are nt biting the hand that feeds. The difference is CNA other that not biting the hand that feeds CNA really is boring news. No stand on anything at all! And too much focus on China. They don’t have to cover Egypt because they will nothing to say once they get info they are not used to taking a stand.

  13. 19 Shivya 13 March 2011 at 17:13

    A refreshing take on Singapore’s media by a Singaporean. It’s almost hopeful to know that atleast someone is thinking along the lines of independence.

    I’m addibg your blog to my reader.

  14. 20 Song 13 March 2011 at 17:36

    Singapore will never be a news hub in the same way as Al Jazeera or Western media. We don’t have a freedom of information and press. Political censorship is still the barrier that we will never liberate ourselves from.

  15. 21 Pigologist 13 March 2011 at 17:52

    Nice post~ I’ve never relied on CNA for accurate world news.

  16. 22 XY 13 March 2011 at 18:46

    taking a look at CNA’s twitter feeds and you’ll see disappointing it is

  17. 23 d 13 March 2011 at 20:01

    I never watch CNA. It’s a combination of the following reasons:

    1) too many pretty Asian faces with american accents ‘reading’ the teleprompter, rather than telling us the news in a knowledgeable, commanding manner,

    2) they have too few people reporting on the ground. Anything that happens in indonesia or china, they have just that one reporter ‘live’ in jakarta or beijing. how can you report on ‘breaking’ news when you are not on site and simply reading what other news agencies are selling to CNA?

    3) what asian perspective? just because there are ‘asians’ (mostly americans at that) reading the news makes it a ‘perspective’ that represents 2 billion people? how patronising!

    4) nothing too politically sensitive about s’pore is aired on CNA, we all know why.

    i suppose that since cna is beamed into hotels throughout asia, maybe we asian viewers DO really want asian newsreaders reading international news? i for one trust news companies that create the news that is sold to other agencies like cna….

  18. 24 Liew Kai Khiun 13 March 2011 at 20:47

    It all boils down to a rather mediocre political culture that filters to the media world where scripted and staged self-induglent narratives are valued over the messy reality. Like our politicans, our journalists and their bosses have never really been in the line of fire, or in any real frontline.

    I am currently in central taiwan and i have been following their news in the evening. However, dramatised and sensationalised, their efforts of their newsdesks to cover the stories continously is laudable. That is because they have to translate, attract and compete, something that CNA, and the Singapore government at large would not really bother.

  19. 25 Bryan 13 March 2011 at 21:00

    I watched the entire Egyptian change of government on BBC. I spent my bus or train ride watching the high quality and free news of the Libyan uprising on Al Jazeera. Now i am back to BBC onlive on the Japanese earthquake. Even TVBS taiwanese do a much better job than CNA. I do not think anyone who wants good news will watch CNA, maybe if they want to know how STI fared when they are on holidays. I probably only have a patience to watch mediacorp news 30 min bulletin. Right now, i wont even watch it for the upcoming elections.

  20. 26 Bryan 13 March 2011 at 21:06

    Not to mention, for all natural disaster reported in all Singaporean media, they are only interested to report Singaporeans missing their flights or their close brush with these disasters, never mind if they were 300km or 2 hours from the disaster zone.

  21. 27 Liew Kai Khiun 13 March 2011 at 21:37

    Oh Yes, YB, did you encounter the message that CNa sent to its clients?

    Japan got earthquake, quickly book your CNA commercial slots NOW!

    Be a Part of Channel NewsAsia’s Breaking News Coverage on the Japan Tsunami

    Channel NewsAsia: Massive Tsunami Hits Japan after Massive Quake
    A massive 8.8-magnitude earthquake shook Japan in the early afternoon today, unleashing a powerful tsunami that wrecked havoc along the streets of coastal towns. Book your spots in the Weekday Evening News Bundle as the channel brings viewers comprehensive coverage reports on the disaster with extended versions of news bulletins tonight.

    … Call our sales representatives now!”

    Update: Mediacorp has since issued an apology.

  22. 28 realobserver 13 March 2011 at 23:23

    “Qatari leaders had the foresight to know that if their dream of balancing the Western perspective of BBC and CNN with an Arab perspective were to be realised, they had to give their start-up the freedom to acquire a reputation for honesty and integrity.”

    Nice observations about the lacklustre journalism at CNA but please do not sing the praises of Al Jazeera on the basis of their extensive coverage of the events in Egypt – have you ever read or heard any constructive debate on the cronyism and corruption in Qatar itself? Obviously not as Al Jazeera does not cover this – in fact have you read anything at all that is slightly critical of Qatar – no, it does not exist in a media-rich world where there is really so such thing as a perfect political administration of a country (even one as small as Qatar) – what do you actually know of Qatar besides the usual propaganda about how “progressive” they are – as an Asian who educated in Asia and the West, has worked and lived in international organisations in both Asia and the West, my perspective of the reality on the ground is very different – the corruption on the ground is asphyxiating – the obnoxious sense of entitlement of the locals is often infuriating as is the treatment of anyone who is a foreigner even though we work honestly and work hard – ultimately there is no denying that this is their country but in modern society there should be a minimum balance of treatment – speak to any foreigner (Western or Asian) and see what they say – how safe can you feel if you know that a local can report you to the police and get you deported just because he “took offence” that you beeped your horn at him for stopping in the middle of the road to chat to his buddy even though he was holding up traffic – don’t be too smitten by the apparent “freedom” of Al Jazeera reporting – where is the coverage of the protests that are planned here or the movement against corruption? Al Jazeera has also avoided reporting extensively on the happenings in Bahrain and Oman (only scant coverage) – Al Jazeera has its own agenda (and that of its political masters) and even though I applaud the fact that the counterbalance of views showed be examined, they are entrenched in their own hypocrisy – did Al Jazeera report the walkout by its reporters?:

    http://www.huffingtonpost.com/2010/06/01/al-jazeera-anchorwomen-qu_n_595932.html

    Maybe its a small issue i.e. a woman’s wardrobe but in a country that harps on about human rights and dignity, women are still not allowed to play a role in society (other than traditional roles) unless of course they are from strong business or political backgrounds – not quite a meritocracy but again this issue is swept under the carpet.

    One other issue – sponsorship laws – there is no freedom of employment (the dreaded NOC is required if you decide you do not want to continue with your resent employer for whatever reason) and everytime you leave the country you need an exit permit from your employer – UAE and Bahrain have abolished these antiquated practices yet Qatari society feels that they need even more stringent laws (because locals when acting as sponsors get a fee for each person they sponsor) – not quote a modern, progressive and evolving society – so why is Al Jazeera so quiet about issues that impact those living in Qatar directly?

    Some examples for your consideration:

    http://gulfnews.com/news/gulf/qatar/qatari-nationals-want-stricter-sponsorship-rules-1.741452

    http://www.arabianbusiness.com/locals-held-back-by-qatar-s-sponsorship-system-17163.html

    http://wlcentral.org/node/1404

    And Al Jazeera also did not report the attempted coup:

    http://www.ennaharonline.com/en/international/5904.html

    There is always more to reality than reported by the news…

  23. 29 Poker Player 14 March 2011 at 09:34

    “all it does is to show our government up as a petty dictatorship (which I don’t mind) but also to show Singaporeans up as a boot-licking, uncritical, insular people that have resigned ourselves to such a propaganda machine.”

    YB, you’ve outdone yourself this time!

  24. 30 tenoch 14 March 2011 at 14:06

    realobserver is spot on about al-jazeers (as was shamil in an earlier reply). while they provide another voice in the wilderness, i think we should be equally circumspect and skeptical about anything that packages itself as ‘the news’. and just as CMA reflects the conceits and agendas of certain parties and interests, the same goes for al-jazeera. to be fair, they ain’t exactly RT, CCTV News or phoenix infonews…but to ignore how the (not exactly democratic or accountable) qatari government uses the network for propaganda in various ways would also mean taking things a tad too simplistically and unthinkingly.

    “When Singapore launched CNA, as I well recall, the announced mission — OK, maybe I was foolish to even half-believe it — was to bring the Asian perspective to international news, a kind of Al Jazeera for Asia.”

    hahaha, this bit caught my eye too. from a politically-neutral point of view, qatar is an asian nation too…so i’m not sure what exactly makes singapore more “asian” than qatar…or is this another example of how we unconsciously reproduce the mental maps, cultural assumptions and unquestioned biases of the dominant discourse(s) we’re most commonly exposed to? “asian” clearly means different things in different contexts so i dun think it’s a pointless issue or something to take too lightly either…

    and really, there’s nothing to ashamed about… yes, the multiple failures of CNA are in many ways a very obvious indictment of the “world-class” illusions that the PAP regime imagines their little island fiefdom to embody…but the buck ends there. trying to do something on the cheap and then boasting about the deplorable outcome as if the incompetence, hubris and hypocrisy on display weren’t obvious enough…now, haven’t we seen it all before? and the joke’s on them, surely! i dun see why i should feel any sense of belonging, ownership or responsibility in a reckoning like this. national(ist) modes of identification only serve to reify a political reality that at the end of the day, has only been constructed to serve the interests of a select group of people. so let them keep their dodgy, parochial little station that nobody watches and let them continue to think its irrelevant voice is really a perspective that others take seriously. *yawnzzz* it’s kinda sad but it’s also not by business (in every sense)…

  25. 31 TTY 14 March 2011 at 16:14

    I rarely watch CNA these days. Who watch by the way?

    But I tend to tune in to CNA when I’m in my hotel room while I’m overseas. Not to catch the news, but just to get a home feeling by listening to the kind of weird accent they have. It makes me feel homely.

    Most of the time I’m online or sleeping in my hotel room, while leaving the CNA running.

  26. 32 aSingaporean 14 March 2011 at 17:26

    I have to agree with “Cynical Investor”. It’s about how much money (specifically, public money) one is willing to spend.

    Al Jazeera was subsidised by the Qatari government to the tune of tens of millions of US dollars every year. It was supposed to turn a profit after several years, but I don’t think this has happened.

    Similarly, the BBC enjoys heavy public funding, to the tune of GBP145.50 per year in TV licence fees, plus additional government funding.

    Without such resources, and without a global presence, it would be very hard for a small outfit such as CNA to provide the same quality of coverage as these media giants.

  27. 33 Robox 15 March 2011 at 01:34

    I wonder if this issue could be viewed from another angle, that of productivity.

    Particularly after the PAP government had started echoing the recommendations by the RP and the SDP on this matter, without crediting either of the parties, I maintained that the target for any productivity drive should be the PAP government itself because it is government, and no one else, that is responsble, directly as in the case of CNA, or indirectly for creating a less than conducive environment for raising productivity levels.

    In particular, it is the vast array of strictures, and the management quality and culture that permeates all of Singapore that inhibit productivity.

    Until that is attended to, the latest productivity drive will fizzle out just as the previous ones had, and go down in history as just another feel-good PAP fad.

  28. 34 Krazyrockstar 15 March 2011 at 15:19

    Well, I think its a classic case of having Absolute Power from the broadcasting monopoly. Mediacorp doesn’t see the need to pay good money for good news insight, because there is no pressure for them to give in-depth news anyway.

    So when the foreign journalists run away, they just stick to “local experts” (who probably cost them 0 dollars) to give background analysis and theoretical bullsh*t.

    Anyway, its very obvious that the overall news published here are all massaged to give the citizens only a mild buzz. They do not want us to experience any extreme emotions, for fear it might cause panic.

    Its a mass sedative.

    • 35 Jeff 15 March 2011 at 19:33

      True. Somebody read his Göbbels, where he talks at length, from several angles, along the idea that if the State can control all information officially available to its subjects, and sufficiently marginalise unofficial information sources, then the State can control not only public opinion, but perceptions of reality by the members of the public. It’s been an utterly essential tool of every authoritarian dictatorship throughout history, no matter what organisational/procedural theatre it’s wrapped in.

      And if you can convince people that their very survival is or has been at stake, and that it was only by the unstinting heroism of the Leader and His Cronies that disaster was averted, then you don’t even need to stomp so heavily on the unofficial information sources: people will have been conditioned to find them nonsensical simply because they do not unfailingly and enthusiastically exalt the Leader.

      Channel News Asia, meet the Korean Central News Agency. CNA to the core, both of them. And I doubt very much that KCNA has much use for foreign journalists, either.

  29. 36 abao 15 March 2011 at 21:17

    Hi Alex, http://www.ustream.tv/channel/nhk-gtv will provide live japan news as long as u have a internet connection


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