Government not a fan of Al Jazeera – but denies censoring it

April 29th, 2010

The government has denied allegations that Al Jazeera International was removed from Singapore screens because of the news channel’s critical reports on Singapore. Replying to a question in Parliament, Acting Minister for Information, Communications and the Arts Lui Tuck Yew said: “On the speculation that recent critical or negative reports by Al Jazeera were the reason why the channel was taken off mioTV service, this is unfounded. In a report by TODAY, Al Jazeera itself was quoted as saying that ‘it was a “mutual” decision between Al Jazeera and SingTel for the broadcaster to drop out of the latter’s pay TV service. Al Jazeera’s contract with SingTel was coming to an end, and in view of the low number of subscriber households, it saw the need to look into other distribution avenues’.”

There had been speculation that a scathing news report on homeless Singaporeans was what led to Al Jazeera International’s removal from Singtel’s mioTV menu. While it denied that it was behind Singtel’s move, the government did not try to conceal its contempt for Al Jazeera International’s coverage of Singapore.

Lui accused the channel of having a “penchant for sensationalising such stories and being selective with the facts”.

The Al Jazeera International report had featured a Singaporean couple who claimed that government policies had forced them to camp on a beach. Vivian Balakrishnan, Minister for Community Development, Youth and Sports, said his ministry’s checks revealed a different story.

“This is a clear example where a foreign media has failed to ascertain the facts,” he was quoted as saying in a ChannelNewsAsia report. “Some irresponsible websites have also caused these falsehoods to circulate widely on the internet. Now that the facts are out, let us see whether those who have been propagating these falsehoods have the courage and the honesty to set the record straight.”

Al Jazeera International has issued a response standing by its report, saying that MCYS had declined its request for interviews.

The episode is a rare case of a dispute between the government and foreign media over coverage of social issues. Most run-ins have been over the media’s comments on the independence of the judiciary and imputations of nepotism or political corruption.

Other international and regional TV news players – BBC World, CNN, CNBC Asia and Bloomberg – tend to focus their Singapore coverage on business and financial news, while documentary channels with operations in Singapore – such as National Geographic and Discovery – shun hard-hitting current affairs shows. Al Jazeera International is probably the only regional player giving airtime to social issues.

Al Jazeera International is also unusual in that its regional base is in Kuala Lumpur, not Singapore.

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