SINGAPORE—Terry Xu is an unlikely martyr for press freedom. The Singaporean, round-faced and self-effacing with a worker cap pulled down low over his forehead, spent most of his 20s in blue-collar jobs before joining The Online Citizen, a rare independent news site in the city-state. He first volunteered as a photographer, helping cover successive general elections in 2011 and 2015. Now the site’s editor, he’s not sure he’ll be a free man when the next election comes around, nor whether The Online Citizen will still exist.
The site is one of the few outlets here that challenges the government’s narratives and gives a platform to dissenting voices, in a country where the ruling People’s Action Party has for decades exercised subtle but pervasive control over conversations in the public sphere. That has made it, and Xu, a target. “Any publication that does not run the government narrative,” Xu told me, “is their opposition.”
Singapore’s control of the national narrative has led to it being ranked 151st out of 180 countries on Reporters Without Borders’ press-freedom index, below more visibly repressive countries such as Russia, Cambodia, and Venezuela. In May, the government handed itself new powers that will extend that control deeper into the digital realm and allow it to unilaterally determine what is true and what is “fake news.” A new law means that any government minister will be able to order even the largest international social-media companies to remove or “correct” content that the government disagrees with, filtering and reshaping what people see online so that it conforms with the official state worldview. Those targeted by the order can appeal, first to the minister and then to a court, a process that is likely to be time-consuming and expensive.