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26 Aug 2009

Censorship: Whose right is it?

Is the LGBT a marginalised community rather than a minority in Singapore because of its censorship policies? What is the role of the media and censorship? Singapore lawyer George Hwang argues that by censoring gay content indiscriminately, the authorities have breached or infringed the rights of the media and the public.

George Hwang and Tan Tarn How, a senior research fellow at the Institute of Policy Studies (Singapore), will discuss issues concerning the censorship of homosexuals, within and without the arts, at a forum Censorship: Homosexual Lifestyle and Freedom of Expression at 7.30pm on Friday, Aug 28 at Post-Museum, 107+109 Rowell Road. For more information, visit www.plu.sg/indignation.

When one talks about censorship of contents in the media, the discussion usually centres on the right to freedom of expression by the media players, be it for news or in the arts. Freedom of expression is not just a one sided street, where the media players impart their opinions, values and ideas. It encompasses the converse, the right of the public to receive information. Therefore, by censoring homosexual contents indiscriminately, the authorities have breached or infringed the rights of the media and the public.

Viewers in Singapore who watched the repeat telecast on free-to-air Channel 5 reported that entire chunks from Dustin Lance Black's (above) and Sean Penn's speeches referencing the former's experiences about growing up as a gay young man and gay marriage rights respectively were cut.
The role of the media is to “inform, educate and entertain”. No one will dispute this ‘oft- quoted’ statement. Has this role of the media been fulfilled as far as content relating to LGBTQ is concerned? You will agree with the answer, “No”. 

Implicit in the word “role” is “duty” and “responsibility”. If the media has a duty, the public has a right, the right to know.

The correlation between freedom of expression and right to information has been enshrined in many human rights treaties. They include the International Covenant on Civil and Political Rights and the European Convention for Human Rights. 

Article 19(2) of the International Covenant on Civil and Political Rights states:

“Everyone shall have the right to freedom of expression; this right shall include freedom to seek, receive and impart information and ideas of all kinds, regardless of frontiers, either orally, in writing or in print, in the form of art, or through any other media of his choice.” 

Article 10 of the European Convention on Human Rights states:

“Everyone has the right to freedom of expression. This right shall include freedom to hold opinions and to receive and impart information and ideas without interference by public authority and regardless of frontiers.”

Since free TV reaches out to both educated and less fortunate illiterate Singaporeans, it covers the broadest spectrum of our society. We shall concentrate on this medium. 

Doubtless the duty to inform and educate is more important than to entertain. This is clear in broadcasting, where the Authority can impose a condition in its licence so that broadcasters have to broadcast certain required programmes. Has the duty to inform and educate the public on gay, lesbian, bisexual, transvestites, transsexuals and other sexual minorities been fulfilled? If it is “no”, the public’s right has been infringed. 

So far, only the “entertainment” limb seems to be fulfilled. How many films or dramas have we watched where the serial killers are maladjusted transsexuals or where the gay characters are limp-wristed hairstylists? How many programmes which depicts LGBTQ people you and I, your neighbours, your colleague at work; have been aired in Singapore?

Popular US sitcom Will & Grace, which features a gay male lawyer and his straight female best friend and has earned 16 Emmy Awards and 83 nominations in its eight-year run (1998 to 2006), is notably not seen on TV (whether free to air or cable) in Singapore.  

If the censors are to curb truthful and accurate information relating to LGBTQ persons or community from being broadcasted, the public’s right of access to such information by lawful means is being infringed. 

Two recent events support the view that our rights as the members of the public have been infringed. One by the authorities, the other by the media when self-censorship is exercised.

It is not difficult to recall MediaCorp being fined S$15,000 (US$10,000) last year for airing an interior design programme with an episode featuring the makeover of a room into a nursery for the adopted baby of a same-sex couple. The Media Development Authority (MDA) issued a press statement saying: "This is in breach of the Free-to-Air TV Programme Code which disallows programmes that promote, justify or glamourise gay lifestyles... MDA also consulted the Programme Advisory Committee for English Programmes (PACE) and the Committee was also of the view that a gay relationship should not be presented as an acceptable family unit."

The same week a 3-minute segment of the Ellen DeGeneres Show where the openly lesbian host condemned homophobia and spoke about the fatal shooting of a 15-year-old gay student Lawrence "Larry" King in school was censored on MediaCorp's Channel 5. Her remarks were in response to an American (Oklahoma) state legislator Sally Kern's anti-gay remarks in a speech addressing her fellow Republican colleagues in which she said that "the homosexual agenda" poses a bigger threat to the United States than terrorism.

It is even easier to remember the snipping of the acceptance speeches by Sean Penn and Dustin Lance Black at this year’s Oscars for Best Actor and Best Adapted Screenplay respectively for the movie Milk by the broadcast station itself. The latter is, no doubt, out of fear. (A list of other fines and examples of censorship in Singapore are linked at the end of the article.)

Should this state of affairs continue? More importantly, should the public’s right be reinstated?

The Free-To-Air Television Programme Code guidelines on morality states:

“Information, themes or subplots on lifestyles such as homosexuality, lesbianism, bisexualism, transexualism, tranvestism, paedophilia and incest should be treated with utmost caution. Their treatment should not in any way promote, justify or glamorize such lifestyles. Explicit depictions of the above should not be broadcasted.”

I will leave you to decide whether the two censored programmes are more a ‘documentary’ than a “promotion of homosexual lifestyle”. 

One depicts the home of a couple in a country where same sex marriage is legal. Their home is one of the many homes chosen for its interior decoration. The others belong to different-sex couples. It is shown like the homes of the different-sex couples. No special treatment was given to it. This is how some people live in Canada. This is factual information not drama.   

The other is a piece of “news” on an event of an industry. The awards are two of the highlights of the evening. Who the winners for the Best Actor award and Best Adapted Screenplay are will be reported all over the world. This is a piece of news. This is factual information. It could be entertainment news but it is not entertainment itself. I wonder if this “news” can ever not be reported or not have people finding out, in Singapore. 

Anyone accusing the award as glamorising “homosexual lifestyle” needs to watch the film Milk. Hollywood may be glamourous, film making is not. Even less is the life of Harvey Milk and the way it was depicted.

The government will be appointing a Censorship Review Committee later this year to study and recommend policies on content regulation. The Censorship Review Committee Report 2003 states that ours is a heterogenous society. It recommended liberalisation on contents relating to homosexuality though it should not be construed as official endorsement of such “lifestyle”. The new committee should examine if there has, in fact, been any liberalisation of policy in this area. Further, it ought to be aware that where states try to promote information that is one-sided, it is tantamount to indoctrination. Such actions have been interpreted in the human rights world as infringement of the right to hold opinions, again part of the right to freedom of expression. States need to be impartial and neutral. It should promote a plurality of voices in the media. These are concepts that the many seems to grasp but failed to implement. 

If the media is too meek to uphold its rights, we should remember as members of the public, we have a right to truthful and accurate information. As for the mechanism for complaints and whether there is such a thing as “homosexual lifestyle”, we will leave them for another day, another time.

George Hwang is a lawyer and is on the Steering Committee of Oxford (UK)-based International Media Lawyers Association.

George Hwang and Tan Tarn How, a senior research fellow at the Institute of Policy Studies (Singapore), will discuss issues concerning the censorship of homosexuals, within and without the arts, at a forum Censorship: Homosexual Lifestyle and Freedom of Expression at 7.30pm on Friday, Aug 28 at Post-Museum, 107+109 Rowell Road. For more information, visit www.plu.sg/indignation.



1. 2009-08-26 17:53  
Interesting article, making some really good points.
2. 2009-08-26 20:54  

Censorship is a tool of governance that no longer cuts the mustard in this age of www.

Sadly, many governing bodies are still hanging onto this aged implement to appease the majority at the expense of marginalizing the minority.

3. 2009-08-26 21:25  
Censorship with the dawn of the age of torrents and media piracy is a thing of the past.

And that's where it belongs. The government should take note that even if they try to stop such influences from coming into their nation, they are, in fact, simply denying their citizens the right to intellectual discourse.

Which makes it no wonder at all that politicians in Malaysia can't debate to save their sorry careers.
4. 2009-08-26 21:40  
S377A can publicly & blatantly be upheld against the gay population without recourse or fear by the authorities, what is censorship rights then? It's like telling starving families to demand better content quality in their cable channels. It's their basic rights, no?

Does the Pope wear Prada? ;)
回應#5於於2009-08-26 21:48被作者刪除。
回應#6於於2009-08-27 00:45被作者刪除。
回應#7於於2009-08-26 21:52被作者刪除。
回應#8於於2009-08-27 00:44被作者刪除。
回應#9於於2009-08-27 00:25被作者刪除。
10. 2009-08-27 00:19  
The point is that the Singapore government had chosen to neither sign nor ratify the International Covenant on Civil and Political Rights (ICCPR).

Neither had the issue been debated in the Parliament. Thanks to the overwhelming "mandate", the ruling party has controlled more than 95% of the "elected" seats in this democratic republic.

Since the government has not signed or ratified ICCPR, it means that the government (not the people) has much more freedom. The govt has the freedom not to align our media policies to that adopted by the major democratic nations. They have not infringed any international law since they have never committed itself to ICCPR.

The message is clear. Singaporeans who want to enjoy the rights under International Covenant on Civil and Political Rights can choose to: 1) Do something to push or pull their government to sign and ratify it; or 2) Do something to move to a country which has signed and ratified it.
11. 2009-08-27 00:46  
I had so much I wanted to say initially?
But I guess it all sums up to one simple personal conclusion:



But that aside, complimenting #1, this is indeed a well-written & sensible article that those old-tards at MDA needs to see.

As long as the MDA is present, or unless they make some significant compromising, Singapore can quit dreaming about achieving global status, being #1 in everything. And also face more of her people leaving for, like what #10 has pointed out, another country.

And #4, a GREAT point you have pointed out there!
12. 2009-08-27 10:11  
In the continent of control freaks (otherwise known as Asia) its everyone's right to be a censor. How else can they keep the younger generation repressed. Censorship is one of the many tools that everyone uses to keep everyone else downtrodden
13. 2009-08-27 13:39  
to the person who left the comment above mine: how much more patronising could you get?

this continent full of control freaks owes much of its control freakhood to its colonial history. let's be honest here - in singapore and malaysia, many of the legal institutions in place that deal with censorship or the restriction of free speech were left by our colonial masters.

and, uh, asia is a big continent. furthermore, continents are big things. whenever someone prefaces anything with X continent is full of Y things, then i tend to take them less seriously. especially if it is a white man speaking about asia in such terms. has the author of the comment been to ALL parts of asia? has he come to a balanced, nuanced understanding of the complexities of the immense continent that is asia? what kind of a meaningless/counterfactual statement is it to state that a) Asia is THE (presumably only) continent of control freaks and b) that everyone here has the right (and presumably desire) to be a censor?

such comments are neither helpful nor constructive. i stagger at the sheer amount of, i dunno, colonial privilege that one must have in order to make such a statement.
14. 2009-08-27 16:04  
Re: #13 above

Oh please - this nonsense about colonial masters is rubbish. Firstly you've had DECADES to make changes, so you have nobody to blame but your own apathy. Secondly China hasn't had been a democracy even once in the last 5,000 years, so stop bashing colonialism - its a lame excuse, made by people who would rather complain than actually change things. If I rule a country and make a law that its illegal to have sex, and 40 years after I am gone, nobody has changed that law, how is it still my fault ?! It's the fault of the citizens who couldn't be bothered. And for the record I come from both a colony and "Asia".
修改於2009-08-27 16:06:57
15. 2009-08-27 17:45  
The more they dig their heels in and try to keep a lid on all things GLBTQ, the more they realize they have already failed. PROHIBITIONS are only enacted when things are going on. They gather in these lofty chambers of higher government and PREACH TO THE CHOIR, meanwhile, life in the real world continues....They gay genie is out of the bottle and all of the governmental legislation and ecclesiastical pontification can't ever put it back. WE'RE HERE, WE'RE QUEER, GET USED TO IT! Say it loud, GAY and PROUD!
16. 2009-08-27 21:06  
Censorship must be made illegal. It is unconstitutional. The US 2nd amendment of constitution guarantees freedom of speech. Only third world countries impose censorship.
17. 2009-08-28 10:21  
Another typical example is the movie 'A Forzen Flower'. Although I do not support this movie because it claims a 'gay' movie but its actually more like a straight soft prono. Gay is evilly protrayed in the moive. Not that gay must be good but there isnt much reflect from his prospective. However, Im still curious what is censored and I was answered when oversea. For those who has not seen the original; the only and 1 part gay sex, once both dressed guys lips touched in sitting position, rest about 15 seconds of France kissing cut! Whilst naked straight fucking in different positions with exotic close up expression till both orgasmed, throughtout the movie is allowed. This is really a clear case of discrimination.
18. 2009-08-28 16:43  
Well, when you're a Singaporean, it doesn't matter whether you're Minority Gay or Majority Straight - either way, you're missing a LOT of rights that other first-world country citizens have - as anyone who tries to protest or be remotely critical in Singapore soon finds out, it seems.

Being censored, and a general lack of freedom of expression, are just part and parcel of living in Singapore - you still have conscription (enforced slavery, but only for Men, right?), for heaven's sake!

So, as annoying and insulting as it is to be censored for homosexual-related-Anything in Singapore, it seems to Me that there are bigger issues of what, exactly, being a Singaporean means to worry about, and what Rights are denied to people living there on a general basis, not 'just' those relating to sexuality.

It's unfortunate, and I feel sorry for people I know living there who Can't just express or communicate to their fullest capability, without fear of what The Man (government and/or the police state system) may do, but that's just the way Singapore is. Good for doing business in. Bad for personal freedoms. Same old, same old...

[Edited afterwards to remove my typing mistakes!]
修改於2009-08-28 16:46:51
19. 2009-08-28 17:21  
#18, I suppose what you're trying to put across is: Singapore's communist after all, in the most subtle way so many fail to realize. God I hate my country.
20. 2009-09-08 14:00  



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