Media landscape in Singapore
Press-state relations have been studied since the late 1950s in journalism scholarship. The political elite in Singapore has developed a sophisticated press control system that is in line with its "pragmatic" ideology, which prioritizes executive leadership and restricts free speech. The media is allegedly censored by the authorities. Under Prime Minister Lee Hsien Loong’s leadership, the government appoints members of major media outlets "which are [were] required to enforce the government line. They will also have the power to arbitrarily decide whether or not a foreign media outlet’s publications or broadcasts are permitted in the city-state."
The main source of press legislation is the Newspaper and Printing Presses Act (NPPA) of 1974. Under the NPPA, print media organizations need to obtain annual permits. Newspaper organizations must also issue management shares to government nominees, opening the door to government intervention over editorial direction and leadership.
In Oct. 2019, the government passed the "Protection from Online Falsehoods and Manipulation Act" to prevent the spread of false or misinformation.. Under this law, the government can “correct" any information it deems as false. Moreover, the Infocomm Media Development Authority (IMDA), a censorship office based in Singapore, restricts the coverage of politically "sensitive" topics under the Foreign Interference (Countermeasures) Bill, paving the way for the government to impose its own narratives upon the media. Press freedom must be "subordinate to the primacy of purpose of an elected government," as said by Lee Kuan Yew, the founder and first prime minister of Singapore. The country’s media industry is somewhat an oligopoly as its print media is primarily owned by Singapore Press Holdings (SPH) while the broadcast industry is largely dominated by the business giant called MediaCorp.
SPH is one of Asia’s leading media organizations with commercial interests in newspapers, book publishing, radio, television, and new media. Though not directly government operated, it is closely supervised by political leadership. On the other hand, Mediacorp is among Singapore’s "largest content creator[s]" ventures owning over five TV channels, over 10 radio stations, and several digital news platforms. Mediacorp is run by Temasek Holdings, an investment company owned by the government of Singapore and headed by former Singaporean politician and the now chairman Lim Boon Heng
Channel News Asia (CNA), an English-language network, was established in 1999 and is owned by Mediacorp. CNA reports on global issues through "Asian perspectives" and has correspondents in four key Western cities, in addition to Asia — Washington D.C., New York, London, and Brussels. Currently, CNA content reaches nearly 10 million unique visitors and 73 million page views each month. It operates in four languages and is present in approximately 30 territories and three different continents: Asia, the Middle East, and Australia. According to Media Bias/Fact Check (MBFC), an independent media outlet that checks news outlets for bias and factual reporting, CNA is deemed minimally biased and factual with a high rating for credible reporting.
The Straits Times was established on July 15, 1845 as "The Straits Times and Singapore Journal of Commerce." Currently, it serves as SPH's premier and most widely-read English-language daily newspaper in Singapore. It is also among one of most widely accessed titles read by 44 per cent of people aged 15 and above in Singapore. A 2020 Reuters Institute survey of 15 media outlets found that 73% of Singaporean respondents trusted reporting from The Straits Times — the second-highest rating next to CNA. The MBFC states that The Straits Times has a clear right-center bias such that "[t]hey often publish factual information that utilizes loaded words ... to favor conservative causes." Though limited in government censorship, the newspaper is deemed highly credible.
We've looked at the coverage of pre- and post-Section 377A repeal, from September 12, 2018 to December 1, 2022.
Mode of analysis
Journalists have long been trained to “think objectively,” that is, frame their stories as “dispassionate presentations of fact” and treat official sources as hard evidence. This practice has led journalists to write and report stories that maintain the status quo. The different articles we reference throughout our piece would indicate how CNA and The Straits Times relied heavily on legal experts, police statements, and various religious or political leaders.
Framing and agenda-setting
Framing refers to how news outlets make certain pieces of information (metaphors, catchphrases, and certain words) appear more salient and meaningful to the audiences to promote a particular agenda. These "salience cues" tell audiences not just what to think but what to think about. This is called agenda-setting. As will be evident in the analysis, both CNA and The Straits Times use a thematic frame showcasing the trends in Section 377A coverage.
The Hierarchical Model/Collaborative Role
The Hierarchical Model highlights various factors affecting media content, from individuals and media organizations to larger, social institutions and systems. In Singapore, social systems like various governing forces and political leaders have encouraged media organizations like CNA and The Straits Times to promote content that supports the interests of those in power. These organizations appear to play a collaborative role of journalism wherein they act as partners of the government supporting efforts that maintain “social harmony” and preserve “national unity.”
Elements of analysis
As Singapore has four official languages and many other minority languages, a number of terms are used to refer to gay men and lesbians, such as "PLU" and "muffadet." Nowadays, “LGBTQ” is frequently used in Singapore mainstream media coverage. While Canada uses the term “2SLGBTQI+” to represent the diverse gender identities of people, we’ve chosen to use the term “LGBTQIA+” throughout our analysis to be more consistent and inclusive with the Singapore based coverage.
According to Penal Code 1871 Section 377A, “[a]ny male person who, in public or private, commits, or abets the commission of, or procures or attempts to procure the commission by any male person of, any act of gross indecency with another male person, shall be punished with imprisonment for a term which may extend to 2 years.”
The following is a brief timeline of events:
CNA media coverage
Gatekeeping pre- and post- Section 377A repeal
CNA’s homepage displays over a thousand articles within the domain of international news, national news, entertainment, and lifestyle. The website has separate blogs for categories like “women,” “sustainability,” and “mental health,” among several others. However, if one types in “LGBT” in CNA’s search bar, there is no trace of the coverage of LGBTQIA+ community before September 2018.
Typing “CNA LGBTQIA+” in Google search engine directs the user to a list of articles by the news outlet on the issue. One of the oldest articles in the list is dated September 12, 2018, which talks about a 43-year-old man legally challenging Section 377A of the Penal Code.
CNA’s search page displays a separate blog button titled “LGBT” instead of one of the more evolved versions of the term like “LGBTQIA+.” The button directs the user to a list of articles regarding LGBTQIA+ community. As of November 11th, 2022, only 47 articles have been dedicated to the LGBTQIA+ faction over the past three years. Out of these, 25 articles were posted after the announcement of the repeal of Section 377A. Among the remaining 22 articles covering LGBTQIA+ related stories, only three appeared to directly address homophobia within Singapore and a majority appeared to focus on highlighting international efforts like decriminalizing gay relationships and promoting a more inclusive society in countries like Indonesia, the UK, and Taiwan.
Striking evidence of CNA’s gatekeeping of LGBTQIA+ content appears obvious in its 2019 live coverage of the Winter Olympics in Beijing, China. A video posted earlier in 2022 with the hashtag saying “#CNAcensorship” went viral on social media platforms like TikTok. It included a CNA reporter's live coverage where a gay couple kissing in the background deliberately interrupted the reporting as an attempt to protest against Singapore’s anti-LGBT laws. Interestingly enough, CNA uploaded a censored version on its website which has now been permanently deleted.
Language as a tool for agenda-setting
A closer analysis of one of the three local stories published on March 1, 2021 underscores the government's secular stance. The article includes quotations by Minister for Home Affairs K. Shanmugam stating, “LGBTQ persons, non-LGBTQ persons, we are all equal. We are not any lesser by reason of our sexual preferences.” This quote coupled with subheadings like “Court’s decision ‘consistent’ with the past position on 377A” seem to convey that the Singaporean government is rejecting its homophobic history and maintaining its moral authority despite the repeal.
The first story posted by the news outlet after the announcement of the dismissal of the appeal illuminates a defensive stance about the government. Despite attempting to promote LGBTQIA+ rights, a recurring theme observed through its preferred vocabulary depicts a forged literary connection between words like “norms”, “tradition”, “stability”, and “family”, and terms like “heterosexual stable family.”
Data journalism and feature quotes
Furthermore, an analysis of a 2019 opinion piece on LGBTQIA+ rights includes statistical evidence like 81.4 per cent of Singapore’s public blatant discouragement of “extra-marital sex.” Though the article highlights “homosexuality” in its headline, it begins with detailing the results of a survey about people’s attitudes on “extra-marital sex.” This could appear odd to an average reader, especially because “extra marital sex” and “homosexuality” are two separate issues that deserve their own space.
The author of this opinion piece is Mathew Mathews, a senior research fellow at the Institute of Policy Studies (IPS) at the National University of Singapore. He is also a contributing opinion writer for CNA. Examining his commentary-based work for CNA indicates leftist leanings. One notable excerpt from the article is:
“In private (and sometimes this is vocalised in the public sphere), both LGBT rights advocates and religious conservatives would prefer that authorities manage the other side and persuade them to stop promoting their agenda or impose their views on others.”
The quotes suggests that while Mathews focused on the increasing acceptance of homosexuality among the youth, a large part of his coverage focused on the religious groups and the LGBTQIA+ activists who preferred to leave the issue to the government, whom both ‘trust.’ In addition, the concerned opinion piece seems to paint LGBTQIA+ advocates as an oppressive force against opposing groups like the conservatives by including comments like the following:
“LGBT advocates have also tried to silence religious conservatives who take a strong stance against homosexuality.”
In comparison to Mathews, who is largely an opinion writer, Ang Hwee Min is among the most prominent hard news reporters for CNA’s LGBTQIA+ coverage. Her public Twitter account was created in 2021. As of November 11th, 2022, her account had a total of 147 tweets and not a single tweet stated her opinions in regard to homophobia and sexuality. Min’s reporting style shows alterations between pre- and post-2022 repeal. One of her 2020 articles about Pope Francis’ support for the LGBTQIA+ community begins with a paragraph citing the Catholic Church of Singapore declaring that the Pope’s comments are “not considered or admissible as official papal teaching.” However, her literary tone post-2022 repeal appeared more explicitly pro-LGBTQIA+ rights. For instance, one of her tweets dated November 27, 2022 contains a reposted article by CNA about the repeal with a caption reading, “Big day in Parliament.”
Sourcing and the overall narrative
While CNA implicitly tries to incorporate an inclusive narrative, their coverage seems to contradict the overall agenda. For instance, one news segment aired on August 19, 2022, just two days before the repeal of Section 377A, featured the government’s position on the “traditional” definition of marriage as a union between a man and a woman. The segment largely focused on statements made by two middle-aged professors. One who seemed optimistic about the government’s position and another began her statement as, “Have a good grip on what the normative expectations are of Singapore and stand by them … because family is so important.” Her comments aired against images of various heterosexual families. The video also showed B-rolls of children playing with toys. These commentaries and visuals apparently suggest the concept of a “traditional Singaporean family” endangered by the LGBTQIA+ community.
On the other hand, a six-month-old documentary series titled "Why Children And Teenagers Struggle With Mental Health | Confronting Youth Mental Health" included teenagers as sources to discuss the youths’ struggle with homophobia. This series gave voice to a younger audience instead of relatively older academics or legal experts. It used animations for storytelling to convey the traumatic experience of concealing one’s sexuality. The overall attitude of the documentary urges the viewers to rethink the traditional negative narrative surrounding the LGBTQIA+ community.
The Straits Times media coverage
The Straits Times homepage is divided into two categories: International and Singapore. The website has several sections like Singapore, Asia, World, Business, Life, Opinion, and Politics. A drop-down arrow also features various multimedia news segments.
Influence on media content and sourcing
“there is ‘significant pressure’ on its editors to follow the government line.
Given that Section 377A is a law-governing regulation, it may not come as a surprise that there is very little media coverage around the repeal in The Straits Times.
Few articles related to LGBTQIA+ community are found on the website before the repeal if one types in “LGBT” in the search bar like "Singapore not ready for same-sex marriage as society is still conservative: PM Lee" and "Landmark High Court case allows Singaporean gay dad to adopt surrogate son." The website also provides a tag page “LGBT+” with the earliest article published on June 29, 2022, which reflects its support of LGBTQIA+ rights only after the Supreme Court planned to repeal 377A.
“Recap PM Lee at National Day Rally 2022” is the first article that appears on The Straits Times after the repeal. It quotes opinions of four prominent political and religious leaders in Singapore. One of the feature quotes selected for the article includes Progress Singapore MP Leong Mun Wai’s comments which seem to promote the idea that the repeal of Section 377A balances the interests of both sides very well. The other key quotes include statements made by three religious leaders at the rally, who unanimously expressed concerns about the alleged threat to the traditional values as a consequence of the repeal. Hence, the overall quotation tries to implicitly defends the government’s previous stance on the criminalization of sex between men.
The hierarchy of influences and agenda-setting
People’s Action Party (PAP) holds a supermajority in the legislature making Singapore a political monarchy with a dominant party system. Positioned on the center-right of Singapore politics, the PAP is ideologically conservative. Given that the political monarch is right-leaning, it potentially explains why there is little support for the repeal of 377A and why LGBTQIA+ rights remain a controversial issue by right-leaning news outlets like The Straits Times.
Skimming through 28 news articles with the search term “repeal of 377A” from October 21, 2022 to November 28, 2022, one can notice that only three news stories expressed support for the repeal. The three articles are:
- "S'pore's repeal of Section 377A a step forward for LGBT groups in Asia, say activists": Interviewee in Bhutan said the repeal of 377A showed progress. 
- "The Big Story: Repealing Section 377A is the right thing to do, says Shanmugam": Law and Home Affairs Minister K. Shanmugam claimed the repeal is the right thing.
- "NDR 2022: LGBTQ community expresses relief at repeal of Section 377A; religious groups voice concerns": Here, the LGBTQIA+ community expressed that discrimination has no place in Singapore.
The Straits Times coverage depicts an agenda promoting marriage as the only safeguard for society as a whole. In all of the seven stories published on the day of repeal, that is August 21, 2022, the immediate need to “protect” the traditional marriage has been emphasized right after the mention of the repeal. It is interesting to note that more words are dedicated to discuss the need to safeguard the institution of marriage than the repeal itself.
For instance, in the article, "Five things to know as Singapore moves to repeal Section 377A", only one section focuses on the reasoning behind the repeal and the remaining two sections explain the necessity and reasons why traditional marriage needs to be protected. In some other articles published after the repeal, the phrase “protecting marriage” is mentioned repeatedly in their headlines.
Moreover, religious groups are frequently mentioned in several articles in an attempt to urge the government to define marriage in the Constitution and to seek permission to preach against sexual relationships between men. The chairman of the Alliance of Pentecostal & Charismatic Churches of Singapore called the repeal an “extremely regrettable decision.”
Data journalism and feature quotes
As established earlier, The Straits Times is generally considered to be a right-leaning media organization taking on a conservative stance against the rights of the LGBTQIA+ community. Medium level support can be found in its coverage primarily as a means to stand behind governmental policy. The choice of statistical data regarding public opinion incorporated within the article tends to focus more on providing credit to the government rather than the issue itself, which is the suppression of a historically marginalized community. An example of the above can be inclusion of results of surveys like forty-three per cent of the 650 Singaporean adults aged 18 years and above expressed support for the decision to repeal Section 377A — more than double the 21 per cent who oppose the repeal. 
Another example of framed data selection is that in 2018, long before the repeal of Section 377A, The Straits Times reported that more than 4,000 signed an online petition to repeal 377A. Meanwhile, it mentioned another petition, "Please Keep Penal Code 377A in Singapore," on the change.org website, which has garnered at least 71,000 signatures over the course of a weekend.
Sourcing and the overall narrative
Although the coverage of the news outlet seems likely influenced by the country’s conservative social system, there are some contrasting observations. The Straits Times recently introduced a YouTube series titled “Our Sons" with taglines like “Ma, I’m gay!” to counter CNA’s attempt to present homosexuality as a threat to family values. Even before the prime minister’s historic announcement of the repeal, The Straits Times took a subtle revolutionary approach towards LGBTQIA+ rights.
An example of this is their 2021 coverage of the infamous gay businessman scandal in Singapore. The article highlights the absurdity surrounding the use of exposing homosexuality as a threat by the gangsters involved. Another one dated December 1, 2022 published an article of the verdict of Tokyo Court claiming "Ban on same-sex marriages violates human dignity." This again indicates a strong support of The Straits Times for the repeal and social institution.
Similarities and differences between CNA and The Straits Times coverage
In April 2021, a story about a man who was charged with inciting violence was published. Both CNA and The Straits Times opted for a similar hard news reporting style and used strong language like “incited violence.” However, other aspects of the coverage differed for both news outlets. For example, CNA’s headline read, “Man jailed for inciting violence, threatening judge who dismissed Section 377A challenges,” while The Straits Times’ headline said, “Jail for man who threatened judge after challenges against Section 377A were dismissed.” CNA’s headline appears to focus on the actions of the individual while The Straits Times’ headline focuses more on informing the audience about what happened and why.
Additionally, it is interesting to note that both the news publications quoted the man expressing his dissatisfaction with the judge. CNA uses the following two quotes to show this:
“To the deadass boomer of a judge who dismissed the challenges against S377A, you better f****** watch out!!"
"Can we please torture the corrupted judges until they f****** crumble & repeal S377A on the spot!? Pretty please, I'd love to personally torture them to their breaking point."
In contrast, The Straits Times uses these two quotes:
“‘To the deadass boomer of a judge who dismissed the challenges against S377A, you better... watch out!!’”
“A second Instagram story posted about half an hour later called for the torture of the ‘corrupted judges’ until they ‘crumble and repeal S377A on the spot.’”
In the above example, both CNA and The Straits Times quote the exact same words. However, from the first quote, one can see that CNA chose to keep the expletive (though not entirely) while The Straits Times omitted it and used the ellipsis instead. We can see a recurring pattern in the second quote in CNA, but The Straits Times chose to omit the expletive entirely. One possible explanation could be the news outlet’s right-leaning bias.
Moreover, the first story posted by CNA after the announcement of the dismissal of the appeal illuminates a defensive stance about the government with subheadings like, “ Court’s decision “consistent” with past position on 377A.” Despite attempting to promote LGBTQIA+ rights, a recurring theme observed through its preferred vocabulary depicts a forged literary connection between words like “norms,” “tradition,” “stability,” and “family,” and terms like “heterosexual stable family.”
This defensive stance was also seen in early 2021 when a group of people protesting against transphobia were arrested due to a lack of legal permit. Both CNA and The Straits Times differed greatly in their reporting methods. Starting with the headlines, CNA published, “3 arrested over protest against transphobia outside MOE building” whereas The Straits Times posted, “Three people arrested for protesting outside Ministry of Education headquarters.” In the case of CNA, the headline indicates what happened and where. In the case of The Straits Times, the headline focuses on the arrest.
Furthermore, the first half of CNA’s reporting discusses the details of the arrest like the number and age of protestors and what their placards read, along with multiple police statements. The second half highlighted how MOE interfered with a student’s decision to seek hormonal treatment. In contrast, The Straits Times focused almost entirely on the actions of the protesters using phrases like:
“[T]hey ignored the police's warning”
“The three refused to comply”
“They were warned”
“[T]hey were liable for an offence”
Here, words like “ignored,” “refused,” “warned,” and “liable” appear to put the blame on the protesters. Another example that could support this argument is that The Straits Times chose to name the arrested individuals while the CNA didn’t. On top of that, unlike CNA’s coverage that discussed the medical and psychological challenges of a student in depth, The Straits Times summed up the student’s concerns in one paragraph with the last quote in the article restating how the protesters violated the Public Order Act.
As Singapore’s media landscape continues to evolve with its changing political environment, both CNA and The Straits Times seem to employ techniques like gatekeeping, framing and agenda-setting, and evidence and source selection when covering stories about the LGBTQIA+ community. Owing to a history of strong government-induced censorship on this issue, the media coverage of both the news outlets portray a defensive stance towards the government and the traditionally established definition of family norms within the region.
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