Tuesday, January 19, 2010

Bloggers strike a blow for investigative journalism in Singapore

The government and the government-linked mainstream media in Singapore promote a false dichotomy between "trouble-making, "Western-style investigative journalism" and "positive nation-building journalism".

This is utter nonsense on many levels and it would take far too long to expose all the hypocrisies inherent in this concept.

But I do want to pay tribute to The Online Citizen, one of Singapore's most popular citizen journalism websites, for demonstrating both the importance of investigative journalism and its positive benefits for society.

For Singapore's population of overwhelmingly craven local and foreign journalists, investigative journalism is a no-go area. But, with few resources and no professional journalists, TOC has slowly moved from being a comment blog to an outlet for increasingly more ambitious (at least in Singaporean terms) reporting.

Last week, TOC published a story on the plight of homeless Singaporeans camping out in Sembawang Park, on the northern coast of the island state. It was well known among a number of social workers that there were Singaporeans living under canvas on a semi-permanent basis (I mentioned the issue in a story about loan sharks I wrote for Asia Sentinel in August).

But TOC went down to Sembawang and told the story of these people, whose predicament gives the lie to the government's (at best ) arrogant and (at worst) dishonest insistence that there are no homeless in Singapore.

Although these people had been camping at Sembawang and other parks for months and had been seeking help from various agencies, the government had done nothing. That was until TOC covered the story, after which the Minister for Community Development, Youth and Sports, Vivian Balakrishnan, apparently visited the campsite, on Thursday.

While you may have presumed that he was on a fact-finding mission to find out how the government could help these poor people, events seem to suggest otherwise. On Saturday night, at 10.30pm, officials from his ministry, the parks authority and 10 police officers raided the campsite and forced some of the campers to leave.

TOC kept with the story, revealing that the government had tried to have some of the families put under something approaching house-arrest, in a half-way house for former drug abusers, and had issued others with court summonses for over-staying their permits at the park.

Now TOC tells us, all the families will be offered proper accommodation and the park campsite has been closed "for maintenance".

While the government may find it inconvenient in a possible election year for pesky citizen journalists to reveal the real nature of poverty and the limits of social welfare in Singapore, how can you argue that TOC's unpaid reporters have not provided a valuable service to their nation?

One of the societal benfits of citizen journalists is that they are more likely to follow a story through from beginning to end rather than abandon it after the first big exclusive. If TOC hadn't followed up on its first story, the campers would probably have been forced out by the police, arrested or made to move elsewhere and the matter would have dropped off the public radar.

Kudos to TOC, whose website has incidentally been plagued by hackers over the last few weeks, hence the lack of links in this blog post.

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