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SINGAPORE    High & Low Tides


    FrontPage Edition: Sat 4 Apr 2009



Films (Amendment) Bill passed




Mr Speaker, Sir, I beg to move "That the Bill be now read a second time”.
Rationale for the 1998 amendments to disallow party political films
In 1998, the Minister for the then Ministry of Information and The Arts, BG George Yeo, spoke in this House to amend the Films Act to disallow party political films. He emphasised the undesirability of the film medium as a platform to conduct political discourse. This was because party political films can be employed to sensationalise or present serious issues in a biased and emotional manner. We should keep politics objective and rational rather than allow emotions to be whipped up in place of rational responses.
Rationale remains valid
The purpose of the restriction was to ensure that people debated politics seriously and not allow it to be reduced to a contest where political parties and candidates promote themselves through camera angles, sharp and slick editing techniques or emotive, slanted presentations. This purpose remains valid. However, the world has changed over the past decade. The web is ubiquitous and is a major source of multi-media information. Societal norms have evolved. We have to adjust to this new environment while recognising that we still want politics to be treated as a serious matter.
We should not prevent people from recording video clips of political events held in accordance with the law or from making factual documentary videos of political issues and events. But we must continue to have limits against undesirable political materials, for example, fictionalised accounts or political commercials, even though it may not be possible to enforce these limits completely. Hence we have tabled amendments to the Films Act. How the parameters in this Bill will be interpreted and where the limits will be drawn can be subjective and a matter of judgement. Therefore, we propose to establish an independent advisory committee, the Political Films Consultative Committee (PFCC), to advise the Board of Film Censors.
The changes we are making are significant ones and will bring our rules up to date. We also recognise that the situation is dynamic and the environment will continue to evolve. We are prepared to make further changes when it is appropriate to do so.
Technological and societal changes
In the decade that has passed since the Bill was first moved, technology had advanced rapidly. Singaporeans are very much plugged in to new media. Household broadband penetration rate is close to 100 per cent and mobile penetration rate is 131 per cent.
The Internet and the emergence of Web 2.0 technology have drastically transformed the way in which information is produced, disseminated, shared and consumed. New media technology has enabled communities to be formed around shared interests and for people to access information, participate in and be connected across a wide variety of issues, ranging from national and political matters to specific interests and hobbies.
Adept at using Web 2.0 communication tools, many Singaporeans, especially the young, have blogs and Facebook accounts. With the ubiquity of recording devices and widely and freely available editing software, you can shoot a film on your handphone or digital camera, edit it on your computer, and publish your work instantly on the web – on your blog, on your Facebook and share them with friends or on YouTube where the rest of the world can view them.
The texture of our society has also evolved. With better education and greater exposure to the world through travel, globalisation and the Internet, our generation of young Singaporeans today are different. They want more of the following – space for political discourse, greater engagement with the Government, and their views to be taken seriously by the Government.
It is therefore important that the Government learns to make better use of the medium of film and new media tools to reach out and engage, inform, educate and obtain the views of media-savvy Singaporeans.
Global trend
In other countries, we have seen how new media and social networking tools have been used in political discourse.
In the 2007 Australian elections, which were dubbed the “Facebook Elections” - Facebook was used extensively by Kevin Rudd, now the Prime Minister, to reach out to young voters.
The US presidential elections last year was dubbed the “YouTube Elections”. Presidential candidate Barrack Obama had used YouTube extensively and a spectrum of new media platforms from Flickr to Twitter, to connect with different groups of voters.
Closer to home, the last Malaysian elections also saw extensive use of new media tools and videos by interested parties. While some videos were factually true, many were deliberately misleading and calculated to arouse and stir emotions by portraying only a certain viewpoint and selecting only certain extreme shots.
Indeed, this is one of the downsides to politics conducted over the Internet – videos and advertisements edited deliberately to distort what was said, to cast doubt and to push a certain agenda. Knowing that it was impossible to correct every untruth on every site, Obama set up one website called “Fight the Smears” in an attempt to set the record straight on rumours, gossips, half-truths and lies which were pervasive over the Internet.
Therefore, while videos, films and new media can be widely used and can improve communications, we must be mindful that they can be easily abused. This is the reason why, even as we liberalise, there needs to be some safeguards to minimise the risk that they will be exploited and to reduce the undesirable effects.
Why only certain party political films are allowed under amended Films Act
Mr Speaker Sir, the Government recognises that Singaporeans, in particular our young, want greater space for political discourse. Over the years, the Government has liberalised and widened the space for expression and participation, and has encouraged citizens to engage in objective dialogue and participate in building a better Singapore for everyone. When Web 1.0 came on the scene, government ministries and agencies created websites and online feedback channels as well as chat rooms and bulletin boards to communicate with Singaporeans. A light-touch approach was also adopted towards regulating the Internet. With Web 2.0, the ministries and agencies are also learning to use new media platforms to interact with citizens. Moving forward, the Government will adopt an even lighter touch with the Internet.
Mr Speaker Sir, the amendments that I seek to make to the Films Act today is another significant step taken by the Government to further liberalise and expand the space for greater political discourse.
With the amended Films Act, we will allow certain types of films which could otherwise be party political films - that is, films that are factual and objective, and do not dramatise and/or present a distorted picture. Let me explain.
At the start of my speech, I had recapped that the intent of disallowing party political films is to keep a proper balance between the emotive and the rational for political debates in Singapore. This is a necessary safeguard given the experiences of recent elections in other countries. This is because anyone can easily shoot and produce a film, and circulate it widely. With sophisticated editing and computer technology today, one can do almost anything to sensationalise or distort the facts and pass this off as the truth.
As Honourable Members would be well aware, pictures could be superimposed on one another, doctored or manufactured to make a scene or situation look real when it is not, such as to portray a well-known political figure of a particular religion indulging in the practices of another religion. It can be considered character assassination but more significantly, it is a dangerous act with gross ill intent to stoke religious sensitivities.
Another example is how factual film footages could be edited slickly to remove the proper context of the original footages. Whatever examples we use, whether it is a crude distortion or one that is so subtle and slick that the untruth appears as the truth, the intention is to mislead and confuse the viewers in pursuit of a certain agenda.
At this point, allow me to address the oft-quoted argument that since the Internet has made it almost impossible to enforce the law, the ban on party political films is meaningless and the Films Act is rendered archaic. Critics argue that such films, including banned films, are available on the Internet and people can watch them and so we should do away with the law altogether.
There are good reasons to make a distinction between what happens in the virtual world and the real world. First, while we recognise that there are practical limitations to prevent all undesirable films from circulation on the Internet, it is sensible and practical not to allow copies of such films from circulating widely and taking root outside of cyberspace. It is still a large and significant audience in the real world. Second, there is a distinct difference in the effect and impact of watching a film alone through a computer terminal off the Internet and having a group of people watch it together. Unlike an excited individual, an excited group of people can easily fuel and exacerbate the emotions.
Furthermore, regulatory legislation is not just about enforcement. It is also about making a statement about what our society recognises as the acceptable norms and the fundamental standards for what is considered the proper conduct of political debate and electioneering in our country.
Our original concerns about films that sensationalise and distort are therefore still valid today but neither should we impose a total ban on all party political films. In line with the recommendation of the Advisory Council on the Impact of New Media on Society, or AIMS, a gradual, calibrated approach in relaxing the regulations on party political films have been taken.
Amendments to the Films Act
The Films Act will be amended to allow for certain types of films which could today be party political films. Currently, all party political films are banned except for reporting of current affairs and films to inform or educate persons on the procedures and polling times for any election or national referendum in Singapore. Firstly, we are amending section 2(3)(a) to spell out more clearly that exemption applies to films made solely for the purpose of reporting of news by a licensed broadcasting service.
Secondly, we will also expand section 2(3) to allow films that are factual and objective, and do not dramatise and/or present a distorted picture. With the amendments, the following will no longer be considered as party political films:
(1) Live recordings of events held in accordance with the law;
(2) Anniversary and commemorative videos of political parties;
(3) Factual documentaries, biographies or autobiographies;
(4) Manifestoes of political parties produced by or on behalf of a political party; and
(5) Candidate’s declaration of policies or ideology produced by or on behalf of the candidate.
Films with animation and dramatisation and distort what is real or factual will be disallowed, as the intent of the amendments is to ensure that these films do not undermine the seriousness of political debate.
Mr Speaker Sir, these amendments will allow much leeway for political parties and election candidates as well as individuals to produce party political films. At the same time, this will allow for political debate in Singapore to remain serious and robust.
Party political films allowed for Internet election advertising
To further liberalise the space for political expression, we have considered carefully and will correspondingly relax the Internet election advertising regulations. Political parties and their election candidates will be able to use films allowed under the amended Films Act during an election period. This goes beyond the recommendation of AIMS, which had in fact recommended that there be a blackout period for party political films during an election.
Independent advisory committee to assess party political films
In line with the AIMS’ recommendation, the Government will set up an independent advisory committee to advise the Board of Film Censors, or BFC, on whether any film is a party political film, and the film is allowed under the amended Films Act. This will be called the Political Films Consultative Committee, or PFCC.
We had earlier announced the Chairman of the PFCC, who is Mr Richard Magnus, retired Senior District Judge and Chairman of the Casino Regulatory Authority. Should Parliament pass the Bill, Mr Magnus will then proceed to form the Committee and draw members from relevant fields, for example, the academia, legal fraternity, labour movement, the print media, and the film sector. In consultation with the Chairman, the Minister for Information, Communication and the Arts will then appointbetween 6-8 members to form this advisory committee.
The PFCC members will exercise judgement to assess if a film is a party political film or comes within any of the exclusions in the Bill, and give their assessment to the BFC. The BFC and PFCC have a challenging task at hand. As with assessing and rating films with some degree of sex, nudity, violence and coarse language, assessing whether a film is a party political film is not an exact science. There will be an element of subjectivity and there will be grey areas. What is factual, what is not? What contributes to an objective or non-objective film? Members of the BFC and PFCC will have to apply their minds and interpret within the parameters we have established for them in the Bill.
Process of determining a party political film
Currently, unless exempted under section 40 of the Films Act, all films are required under section 14 to be submitted to the BFC for classification. Films exempted include films made by individuals that are not intended for distribution or public exhibition, as long as these are not obscene or party political. Examples are that of wedding celebrations and birthday parties and corporate training videos.
The BFC will assess all films submitted to it for classification. Any film that the BFC considers could be a party political film will be sent to the PFCC for their evaluation and views. The BFC will study the PFCC’s recommendation before making its decision as to the status of the film.
Any owner of a film that disagrees with the Board’s decision can appeal to the Films Appeal Committee or FAC, which is already provided for in the Films Act. The FAC is made up of private and public sector individuals. Its decision on appeal is final.
Mr Speaker Sir, the amendments will significantly open up a much larger space for political discourse using the medium of film. We trust that individuals, political parties and filmmakers will find ample opportunities to bring their message across in creative and constructive ways through films that do not distort or dramatise. In doing so, we will continue to keep our political discourse sober and rational.
Thank you.

Source: Press Release 23 Mar 2009

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