Friday, August 04, 2006 FEER to comply with requirements for off-shore newspaper

Hat-tip to the annoymous commenter who has been kind and patient enough to visit and leave comments despite the recent hiatus.

Anyway, this story has only been picked up in Today today, which might explain why I hadn't realised that this had happened.

Before I begin, I would like to emphasis that the foreign press are treated with immense suspicion and are greatly restrained by virtue of their "foreignness". Alot of these restrictions DO NOT apply to the domestic press (or are present in a greatly lessened form).

To be honest, I didn't think even as a simply factual article, that it was terribly well-written, for the simple reason that it doesn't make any sense even on repeated readings unless you've got a knowledge of how laws work and where to find the relevent statute.

Our tax money goes towards the maintanence and upkeep of an online repositary of the latest and most current of our statutes at Statutes Online, a remarkable service given the inaccessibility of most nations' statutes. Case in point, try finding current vietnamese legislation. You'll tear your hair out.

Anyway, here's the puzzling paragraph...
This change is to correct an anomaly for FEER, which currently does not have to comply with conditions for offshore newspapers.

And the explaination given?
It follows the FEER's move from a weekly to a monthly publication in 2004.

Which means absolutely NOTHING until you go and look at Newspaper and Printing Presses Act (Cap. 206, 2002 Rev. Ed.). If you're looking for it at Statutes Online, just type in 206 in the space provided and then the corresponding link at the next page.

But here's why there was a lacunae (hole) in the law.
Permit required for sale and distribution in Singapore of offshore newspapers
23. —(1) No person shall sell or distribute, or import for or possess for sale or distribution any offshore newspaper in Singapore unless there is in force a permit granted by the Minister to the proprietor of the newspaper or his agent authorising the sale or distribution of that newspaper in Singapore.

The definition of "offshore newspaper" is found in 23(7)(a) which reads, "“offshore newspaper” means a newspaper published outside Singapore at intervals not exceeding one week which contains news, intelligence, reports of occurrences, or any remarks, observations or comments, pertaining to the politics and current affairs of any country in South-East Asia, except where the circulation of every issue of the newspaper in Singapore is less than 300 copies"

That in turns explains why when FEER shifted from a weekly to a monthly format, it technically was no longer a "offshore newspaper".

But here's the kicker. Unlike Malaysian and Local press, there is no room or avenue for appeal in the event that your (offshore newspaper) application for a license is rejected. But more on that latter.

So, in turn, what exact is this "declared foreign newspaper"? For that, we turn to s. 24 of the same act
Declared foreign newspapers
24. —(1) The Minister may, by order published in the Gazette, declare any newspaper published outside Singapore to be a newspaper engaging in the domestic politics of Singapore.

(2) No person shall, without the prior approval of the Minister, sell or distribute or import for or possess for sale or distribution any declared foreign newspaper.

(3) The Minister may grant his approval under subsection (2) subject to such conditions as he may impose or may refuse to grant or revoke such approval without assigning any reason.

(4) The Minister may restrict the sale or distribution of each issue of any declared foreign newspaper granted approval under subsection (2) to such number of copies as he thinks fit, and may require such copies to be marked in such manner as he may direct.

(5) Any person who contravenes subsection (2) or fails to comply with any of the conditions imposed under subsection (3) or who sells or distributes any copy of a declared foreign newspaper which is not marked in accordance with subsection (4) shall be guilty of an offence and shall be liable on conviction to a fine not exceeding $50,000 or to imprisonment for a term not exceeding 2 years or to both.

(6) In any proceedings under this section, it shall be presumed, until the contrary is proved, that any person found in possession of more than 5 copies of the same issue of a declared foreign newspaper had possession of them for sale or distribution.

In case, anyone was wondering what the numbers in square brackets indicate, it simply refers to the amending act that insert or amended that relevant clause. Therefore [22/86] refers to the Act 22 of 1986 which has either inserted or amended the clause. Now, the benefit of being a law student is access to LawNet, which in turn, gives us access to all these amending acts and the relevent parliamentary debates. For all your "plebians" out there, sorry, you probably have to go to the Supreme Court Library.

But let us turn to s. 24(1) and you, the reader, as an reasonable intelligent person will realise that effectively this is a form of governmental fiat. As long as the Minister says so, you become a declared foreign newspaper. And note, the section is not worded in such a fashion that you have to engage in the domestic politics of Singapore before the Minister can "declare" you, but simply by virtue of being "declared" you become a "declared foreign newspaper". But before unwary readers believe that this is utterly arbitrary, it would appear that the minister does gives reasons as to the offending articles and acts.

And thus far, only 2 such papers have been so declared. FEER and the former AWSJ (it's now called the Wall Street Journal Asia).

But regardless, the courts do come to the rescue in this respect. Ministerial decisions (except where on the basis of national security and in particular when there is the particular recitation of article 149 of the Singaporean Constitution, the basis of our Internal Security Act a.k.a. ISA) are always reviewable on an objective basis i.e. the minister cannot simply say s/he's satisfied (subjective basis) and that's the end of the story.

Just a slight problem. The definition of engaging in the domestic politics of Singapore is so wide that any comment on any local issue/policy would almost flout it.

Here's the relevent judicial pronouncement from Chan Sek Keong J (as he was then) in Dow Jones Publishing Company (Asia) Inc v. AG, [1989] 3 MLJ 321 (Sing. C.A.):

"In the context of Singapore, domestic politics would, in our view, include the political system of Singapore and the political ideology underpinning it, the public institutions that are a manifestation of the system and the policies of the government of the day that give life to the political system. In other words, the domestic politics of Singapore relate to the multitude of issues concerning how Singapore should be governed in the interest and for the welfare of its people."

So, basically, foreign press comment on Singapore at their own risk.

And no, there isn't any constitutional issue involved here because they are well foreign and art. 14(1) guarantees the freedom of speech and expression only to citizens.

And so that's how the cookie crumbles I suppose.


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At 11:14 PM, Anonymous ted said...

Well, you don't say, even the supposedly freedom of speech 'granted' to citizens are limited and comes loaded with responsibilities that is arguably defined by the powers that be. Or so I may be wrong.

At 3:25 AM, Blogger Shaun Lee said...

I don't think we can look to the court for change. This is going to be a political thing I fear...


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