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.
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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.