Virtues and Vices of Media and Press Freedom – from The Philippines and Singapore to The US, South Asia and The Arab World

The settled 20th century consensus on different styles of media regulation has largely been challenged by the pervasiveness of online media which continues to shape national and trans-national dialogues in the 21st century. However, when tracing the development of media regulation in the 20th century, one can learn a great deal about various genuine and ‘fake’ problems regarding media in the 21st century.

Singapore, The Philippines, Pakistan and India 

While incredibly different nations, each has three things in common. Singapore, The Philippines, Pakistan and India were all colonised Asian lands that received their independence from an English speaking empire beginning with The Philippines in 1945 and ending with Singapore in 1963 when it became fully independent of Britain as part of Malaysia, before becoming its own sovereign state in 1965. Secondly, each state is multicultural and in each state English is a non-indigenous language that has gained official status as a great equaliser among the different peoples of the respective states.

Each of these countries have a very different kinds of multiculturalism. As a series of islands, The Philippines have a variety of distinct ethno-linguistic identities over a wide area in the Pacific. Additionally, while the majority of contemporary Filipinos are Roman Catholic, in the south, particularly in Mindanao, there is a substantial Muslim, aka Moro population. Compared to early post-colonial Malaysia in particular, The Philippines had an easier time creating a pan-Filipino identity, although for current President Rodrigo Duterte, the job is not yet complete as he has campaigned to federalise the country in order to create more government accountability and economic equability across the various distinct regions of the country.

Ironically, after 1945, The Philippines did not adopt the US model of federalism, but did adopt a very US style approach to media regulation. Both before and after the 1972-1981 Martial Law period, The Philippine press operated along the lines of the confrontational/adversarial US media in terms of editorial lines. Furthermore, in terms of financial organisation, most of the major outlets were owned by a handful of dynastic oligarchs.

At a time when the country needed post colonial unity combined with locally responsive government, The Philippines received neither. Today, while many in the US claim falsely that President Duterte is cracking down on the media in terms of regulation, in reality the opposite is true. For better or for worse, Philippine media is an American style confrontational free for all, where the best chance of regulating the press comes not from traditional styles of censorship but through a constitutional policing of media outlets such as Rappler that have foreign owners who contrary to Rappler’s assertions, appear to be very much influencing its editorial policy.

Singapore took a polar opposite approach to media regulation after independence and by his own admission, Singapore’s founder Lee Kuan Yew wanted to avoid the American style excesses of a post-colonial Philippines. In the 1960s, a majority of Singapore’s population were first or second generation immigrants, making the nature of multiculturalism very different than that in The Philippines. Race riots in 1964 and 1969 led the country’s leader Lee Kuan Yew (LKY) to implement a carefully balanced legal suppression of certain racially inflammatory media outlets and content. LYK felt this was necessary in order to prioritise safety, racial harmony and economic growth. While Singapore under LKY allowed individuals to read foreign media, LKY made the decision to prohibit locals from foreign media discussing Singapore’s internal situation. Instead, foreign media in Singapore was a way for Singaporeans to learn about the wider world. In this sense, Singapore realised the dangers of a foreign influence over the press long before The Philippines. It is only today that Duterte is trying to enforce a law that had previously been largely neglected in order to bring Rappler into line. Duterte is stopping far short of LKY, but the spirit of trying to limit foreign influence over editorial policies in Philippine media is in fact partly borrowed from Singapore. While the law relating to foreign influence over media has been on the books since the 1980s, Duterte is often erroneously credited with penning the law, when in reality he is merely just the first contemporary leader of his country to enforce it in a manner that has gained public attention.

While The Philippine media took the American route and Singapore took the route of using regulation to foster peace and racial harmony, the media in India and Pakistan took a route which allowed a largely unregulated press to flourish. This owed much to the fact that the press in both India and Pakistan was largely divided into regional and linguistic factions that were mutually unintelligible apart from an English language press, whose readers were determined by educational background rather than ethno-linguistic backgrounds.

Today however, even in widely linguistically diverse countries like India and Pakistan, where in the case of India especially, English is spoken at lower rates than either The Philippines or Singapore, a fractious press continues to be problematic due to its association with various kinds of extremism. Pakistan, like The Philippines has also had to deal with the problem of foreign ownership and foreign meddling in the press, in ways not too dissimilar from the issues surrounding Rappler in The Philippines. Thus, even wide linguistic diversity has not been able to fully deny agency among extremist media outlets in respect of putting national cohesion at risk.

Russia, EU and United States

The collapse of the USSR led to wide ranging press reforms and Russia chose to adopt the Philippine/American model of little, if any press regulation combined with oligarchic private sector ownership. Today, while the Russian press is more diverse in terms of ownership than it was in the 1990s, it is still largely freewheeling in terms of content. Ironically, like with President Duterte, many accuse the current Russian President Vladimir Putin of trying to clamp down on the press, although reality tells a different story. In Russia, it is possible for a Russian and in many cases even a Russian and a foreigner to start a harshly anti-government media outlet. The Times of Moscow and the radio station Echo of Moscow are two substantial examples of widely known anti-governmental media outlets. While Russia remains a very different society than the US, it has been able to largely embrace the American media model without experiencing social discord for a very simple reason. Russia is today, a largely ideologically homogeneous country. Few Russians want to change the nature of governance and few want to change the political leadership, as will soon be demonstrated in elections later this month. While many Russians have serious economic grievances with national and regional governments, there is little attraction to the anti-government media which is allowed to exist for the simple reason that it does not pose any threat to social stability, owning to its lack of popularity.

In the United States, the matter is more complex. Like Singapore, the United States is primarily a nation of immigrants. Much of America’s immigrant population have arrived in recent decades, while others, including both many white-European Americans and many Latino Americans initially came several centuries ago.  Whereas in Singapore, there are three primary and easily identified ethnic groups (Han Chinese, Malay and migrants from South Asia who are referred to as Indian), in the US there are literally hundreds of different ethnic identities and even more mixed ethnic identities. In what could be described as a counter-intuitive way, this worked to the advantage of the US creating a common American identity in a manner not possible in Singapore. Because of the many ethno-racial elements of American society, a genuine melting pot was asymmetrically created, wherein a pan-American identity came to pass and over time, various racially discriminated groups were allowed to ‘join’, while others continue to face discrimination as they await their turn to become ‘mainstream Americans’.

Media regulations in the US tended to reflect this. This has led to a culture where at all times there have been ideologically confrontational media outlets that operate within the framework of Americanism. This has existed in tandem with the US media freely targeting racial groups who are present in America, but not considered sufficiently ‘Americanised’. This most famously expressed itself in the anti-African American press of the American south in the 19th and early 20th century, as well as the anti-Chinese and anti-Japanese press of the early 20th century and finally the anti-Latino press of the late 20th century. Today it is Russian-Americans who are racially abused due to allegations that they are not sufficiently Americanised, in spite of holding citizenship.

In spite of these issues, concerns over “fake news” in the US are nothing compared to what they are in countries that have only recently broken free of colonial servitude. Because of America’s extreme ethnic diversity, which continues to grow, it is increasingly difficult for any one group to gain sufficient dominance over the country no matter what is said or written in the free media. This is especially true now that the internet allows for a media outlet to be created at a low cost while still being able to achieve wide distribution.

Thus, while some in the US claim that they want to restrict media content for the ‘public good’ or worse yet for ‘national security reasons’, both of these claims are absurd as even when the US press was far less diverse than it is today, it has a proven track record of not having any discernibly negative (or positive) effects on social harmony compared to the press in Singapore in the 1960s which fomented race riots, let alone the press in South Asia which has had the tendency to fan problems ranging from armed extremism to violent separatism.

In Europe, media became increasingly free as monarchies and despotic regimes gave way to semi-democratic nation states. Because many of these states were either homogeneous or near homogeneous in terms of language, race and religion, the issues faced by multicultural societies were non existent.

It was after the Second World War that countries in Europe whose Jewish population had been harassed and killed by fascist regimes, established new laws, prohibiting media outlets that praised fascism. This was true in countries like Austria and West Germany owing to the desire to shed a reputation for anti-Jewishness, while it was also true in the Communist states of Europe including East Germany, Poland, Hungary etc., due to an overarching ideological opposition to fascism.

Today, Europe is economically united and to a degree, politically united. However, it remains as linguistically divided as ever and in many ways, more ideologically divided than ever. Today, Europe seems unable to cope with the question of how to regulate media in countries that in very recent decades have seen an influx of Muslim immigrants and non-white immigrants, combined with populations that were historically more prone to radicalisation leading to violence against their neighbours than those in Asia. When it comes to late-modern political extremism, Europe has produced more unique movements than any other geographical space in the world.

At present, while most Europeans claim they want to find a balance between an open media and a media which discourages social tensions, few can agree on the proper balance, thus causing supreme agitation among both the indigenous and immigrant populations of Europe.

The Arab World 

Of any large global region, the Arab world has more potential for unity than any other. In the Arab world there is a common language (albeit with differences in dialects), a long shared history, and overwhelmingly a single religion, Islam. While Christianity is the most widespread minority religion, it must be noted that unlike in Europe where Christianity and Islam have often not been able to coexist, in most of the Arab world, Islam, Christianity and other minority faiths have existed harmoniously during much of history since the ascension of The Prophet Muhammad.

Compared to the countries of South East Asia, compared with China, certainly compared with fractious Europe and even compared with the US ‘melting pot’, the Arab world has fewer obstacles to unity than any place on earth. Tragically, starting in the mid 20th century, states and entities who serve to economically benefit from a weak Arab world, have sought to promulgate sectarian disputes within the Arab world in order to prevent a united Arab state from re-forming. This has expressed itself in the so-called Shi’a-Sunni split, the Lebanese civil war and the current conflict in Syria, just to name a few crises.

However, compared with the historically divided and presently multicultural realities in South Asia, South East Asia, Europe and the modern Americans, the Arab world’s divisions are microscopic. The problem is that these small divisions have been inflamed more intensely than those anywhere else in the world.

Because of this, one sees a mish-mash of media regulations in the Arab world ranging from the near free-for-all in the Levant to incredibly restricted in parts of the Gulf Cooperation Council, most notably Saudi Arabia. If the Arab world were to unite in a single state or close federation, it is possible that the Arab media could be the least restricted in the world because Arabs ultimately have far more in common than people in any of the other nations and regions mentioned previously in this piece. This is a reality that sadly many Arabs themselves fail to acknowledge.

Conclusion

The idea of a free media sounds attractive in all conditions, but in reality, its virtues are relative to the nature of a particular society, region or set of regions. At its best, a free media can help to educate and enlighten a population and at its most negative, it can sow discord, distrust, violence and civil war. If peace is the most important universal value and if health and prosperity follow close behind, then one ought to look at freedoms within media as a means to achieve peace, health and prosperity, rather than as an end in itself.

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