Press Watch – Singapore: Reporter Warned Over Leakage of Official Secrets

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It was a what is being described as a state secret that Janice Tai, a young reporter of The Straits Times (ST), Singapore’s premier mass-circulation daily, stumbled upon while chasing a story.

She was following up on a tip-off about an online resale portal that the state housing agency, the Housing Development Board (HDB), was to set up but was yet to make an announcement on the venture, planned to be inaugurated in January.

An ST report on October 20 said the upgraded HDB resale portal would halve the transaction time from 16 to eight weeks.

Ahead of presenting her scoop to the editors, Janice had done her leg-work, making various inquiries, as is done routinely by journalists, sought comments from housing parties and approached HDB officer Ng Han Yuan for confirmation. Apparently, the push for the story was that it would be of significant interest to buyers and sellers of HDB properties.

The HDB, which had kept the project under wraps, came to know of the information leakage following the inquiries and filed a police report on what was seen as a breach of the Official Secrets Act (OSA).

It was stated in police statement that followed: “The government takes a serious view of wrongful communication of confidential information, especially if the party involved is a public officer and will not hesitate to take action.”

HDB officer Ng Han Yuan was charged in court for “wrongful communication of confidential information”, as he had shared information relating to the project called “Streaming of Resale Transactions”.

His case would be mentioned in court again on December 15.

In turn, reporter Janice Tai received a “stern warning” from the Police. An offence against the OSA carries a penalty of $2000 fine and two years in jail.

The Straits Times stood by Janice Tai, saying she was only doing her job as a reporter of the newspaper. It added, “[Tai] continues to be a valued member of the ST newsroom team.”

The Official Secrets Act covers a broad range of responsibilities—from protecting national security information, information that is market sensitive, to any and all material prejudiced against government operations.

There was a precedent in 1992 when the government took legal action against five people for violation of the OSA. At that time, Business Times, a business daily of the Singapore Press Holdings (SPH) group, had published the GDP growth figure for the second quarter ahead of the official announcement.

SPH Journalists Lose Jobs

In a separate development in October, journalists were among 130 employees who received their marching orders in an SPH retrenchment and restructuring exercise. The affected journalists included senior photographers, sub-editors, and news desk staff from The Straits Times (English) and Lian He Zaobao (Chinese) dailies, as well Business Times, and an afternoon tabloid, The New Paper. Those retrenched received a severance package of one month’s worth of salary for each year of service and those aged 58 and above got an additional one month’s pay for their years of service.

The shake-up, affecting 10 per cent of SPH employees, came as advertising revenue dipped by $103 million or 6.7 percent year-on-year, an indication its lion share of advertisements is being eaten into by alternative media.

Critics chided the SPH for cutting head count despite posting a 32 percent rise in net profits to $350 million over the last financial year. However, the higher profits came from its non-media investments and property holdings.

Derek da Cunha, political analyst, reckoned that the SPH’s declining advertising revenue stemmed less from digital media competition than from it being tied to the government’s apron strings.

After all, many newspapers around the world continue holding their own despite the challenge of digital media.

“As long as the SPH stable of newspapers keeps treating the ruling party and the wider Establishment with kid gloves, and do not subject them to rigorous scrutiny and examination, the decline in SPH revenue in the media segment is likely to continue unabated,’’ da Cunha said. To back up his point, he cited the New York Times, which had seen a hike in paid subscriptions in the face of challenges from the alternative media.

“People still have a thirst for quality investigative reports and analysis despite the challenge from the social media,” he said.

Strategy-wise, however, the SPH is going beyond its newspaper and magazine business and venturing into out-of-home advertising. In September, the conglomerate struck a deal with MediaBox Pte Ltd to focus on motion and static outdoor advertisements and events management, not only in Singapore, but also in the region.

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