Yesterday, the Elections Department held a briefing for mainstream media explaining the latest changes to Elections Advertising regulations. You can see reports in the Straits Times (15 March 2011) and on Channel NewsAsia’s website (Link). It’s part of the quickening preparations for an expected general election.
Most of the changes relate to political parties, candidates and election agents. Two changes however relate to non-party netizens and I will try my best to explain them here. The mainstream media briefly touched on these two changes in their reports, but I also had a conversation with a journalist last night who explained them to me in a bit more detail.
Singapore Democratic Party on the campaign trail in Yuhua, Bukit Timah market and Ghim Moh, 13 March 2011.
The first change that relates to netizens is that video recording of political party rallies and other election activities will not need to be submitted to the Board of Film Censors (BFC) provided these recordings are not “distorted”. Previously, under our Films Act, all films (a term that includes video) must be passed by the BFC before they can be distributed or exhibited.
During the press briefing, the Elections Department apparently gave an example of a blogger uploading a two-minute video clip of an election speech. So long as it is not misleading, it will not need to be priorly approved by the BFC.
I can think of many additional questions, for which I don’t have answers. For example:
1. What constitutes “distortion”? It is only natural that video is edited. You need to add titles, sometimes you need to add subtitles especially if the speaker is using a different language. If the translation is faulty, is that distortion? You may wish to excise gaps when no one is speaking to make it more viewer-friendly, you may want to splice different parts of a rally so that you can compare and contrast different speakers touching on the same subject; you may want to splice different parts of rallies by two or more different parties so that you can compare and contrast what different parties say about the same subject . . . and so on. I have no idea where the boundaries are. I even suspect the Elections Department themselves do not know since the likely work ethic (as in many government departments) is to wait for instructions from their political masters. They won’t dare make up rules without an OK from above.
2. Is this exemption from BFC approval only during the campaign period or does it apply all the time? [Update: This is answered in point 4 below.]
That’s the problem with the government refusing to recognise the legitimacy of non-mainstream media. The result is that none of us were invited to this press briefing. If we had been there, we would have jumped up and asked for clarification on the spot.
Then again, maybe that is why we were not invited. Bureaucrats hate to be asked questions for which they have no answer.
The second change as I understand it is that internet content that promotes a party or candidate no longer requires an authorship declaration. Previously, I am told, the rules stipulated that any message (whether through blogging, social media, twitter, sms and all sorts of platforms) that promoted a party or candidate had to come with the sender’s identity. Now, this is not required; anonymity is allowed.
I saw this as bowing to the inevitable. Netizens, anonymous or not, were anyway going to do what they were going to do. There would be so many doing so anonymously, that if the government had to track them down for prosecution during or after the campaign, the entire government machinery would be so bogged down, it would come to a halt. So they’ve decided to recognise the inevitable and use the opportunity to cloak themselves with magnanimity instead.
As I said, this is my current tentative understanding of the changes. I may be mistaken as to the details because I am getting this information second hand. Despite a search, I cannot find any clear press statement from the Elections Department. If I discover any further details, I will do so in a subsequent post.
Addendum, 15 March 2011, 19:19h
As Lee Sze Yong pointed out in his comment below, the amendments in legalese can be found at the government’s electronic gazette website. For non-party netizens the most important is probably the one titled Films (electronic campaign recording) Notification 2011 which I have archived here for easy reference.
To better understand what it means in practice, I’d like to say this: You have to make a clear distinction in your mind between a “party political film” and an “election campaign recording”.
The latter is a passive video recording of offline campaign activity, e.g. a rally or a walkabout, and this is what is allowed to be distributed and exhibited over the internet without going through the BFC, subject to the “no distortion” rule, whatever that means.
If the video consists of a party representative speaking directly to the camera, or a collection of images assembled for the video as in a documentary, and meant to convey a certain message, it would probably — no one can be sure because in Singapore goalposts can be moved to suit the ruling party — be classed as a party political film and therefore does not fall within the exemption granted by the latest gazettes. It would not be allowed unless passed by the BFC.
Two other points worth mentioning:
3. The exemption from BFC approval only applies if your “election campaign recording” records an activity that is lawful. If it is an unlawful activity, it would be unlawful for you to transmit that recording. An example I can think of might be this: The police gave a political party a rally permit until 11 p.m.. The last speaker however exceeds the time somewhat, continuing to speak until 11:10 pm. The police didn’t stop him, but after polling day the authorities decide to make a case out of it, declaring the extra ten minutes of speaking an unlawful activity. Your video of those ten minutes would likewise be an unlawful video and if you transmit it, you could get into trouble. They could retroactively prosecute you too.
4. The gazette I archived resolves one question I had posed above. If your “electoral campaign recording” video was lawful for you to put up on your blog or transmit via social media or mobile media during the campaign period without prior BFC clearance, then it will remain lawful for it to remain on the same site(s) after the elections.