After months of proposing that “netizens” get together to develop a Code of Conduct to self-regulate Singapore’s online community, it seems like the Minister for Information, Communication and the Arts Dr Yaacob Ibrahim has got tired for waiting for the reluctant bloggers to do what he wants. The Media Literacy Council will be launched on 1 August, spearheading efforts in public education on media literacy and cyber wellness. The Council will also “advise the government on the appropriate policy response to an increasingly complex and borderless world of media, technology, consumer expectations and participation.”
The Media Literacy Council talks about creating a “safe, secure and civil media environment” for all and about “appropriate social norms and discernment”. And although there is nothing inherently wrong about wanting to promote civil behaviour, the Media Literacy Council doesn’t seem to be actually addressing what should be its actual reason for existing… media literacy.
Although they’re certainly not mutually exclusive, media literacy isn’t actually about being safe or secure. It’s not about “appropriate social norms” (who even decides what these norms are?) It’s about recognising how the media affects our lives, and therefore taking steps to think critically about the influence that it wields. It’s about looking critically at what we see around us, asking ourselves what they’re showing us and (sometimes this is even more important) what they’re not showing us. It’s about examining motives and agendas, reading between the lines and finding the hidden messages. It’s reading beyond what’s merely on the page, and then making an informed decision about what’s before us. (That’s why, in our ongoing media literacy feature on SEAYSS, we have media memoirs from young Southeast Asians.) Yet this isn’t even mentioned – not even a whisper – in relation to the Media Literacy Council.
Still, that’s not exactly surprising. Why would the government want Singaporeans to develop sharpened media literacy skills? Why would they want us to start questioning the motives and influences behind what we read in The Straits Times, or see on television, when all these mainstream media publications and broadcasts are state-owned? Why would they want us to start reading into their campaign videos, or even the Social Studies syllabus in schools?
The task of actually tackling media literacy will also run up against another big issue in Singapore that the government would rather not address: the fact that we have no Freedom of Information Act, and that transparency (or lack thereof) is a problem. If we were to really talk about media literacy, we would inevitably have to talk about the fact that it is very difficult for the average Singapore to gain any access to information about what is going on in our country and its ministries, beyond what our politicians deign to tell us, which is why it is difficult for us to corroborate or verify information, or for journalists to carry out much in-depth investigative journalism. This also makes it challenging for the public to have useful, comprehensive discussions on important issues; we just keep running into walls where we run out of data to help frame or forward arguments.
By placing the emphasis on “appropriate social norms”, it seems like the Media Literacy Council is just going to spend its time telling us what we can or cannot say and do online, without dealing with we do or do not know – and there is a lot Singaporeans don’t know about the way our country is run that we need to know if we really want to raise the standard of discussion in our community.
And of course, in the spirit of the “bottom up process” and “coming together” that our Dr Yaacob was talking about, members of the council are appointed by the Minister, and the news only released to Singaporeans the day before the Council is set up. Wow, that’s not top-down at all. Well done, sir.