Transcript of speech by PM Lee Hsien Loong at the CNA 20th Anniversary Gala Dinner, on 29 Mar 2019.
Mr Niam Chiang Meng, Chairman, Mediacorp,
Ms Tham Loke Kheng, Chief Executive Officer,
Ladies and Gentlemen
I am very happy to join you tonight to celebrate CNA’s 20th anniversary. As Chiang Meng reminded you just now, I was here for the launch of CNA International. What he means is, very politely, I was almost there at the beginning of CNA too.
CNA Today20 years ago, when Channel NewsAsia was first launched, it was a completely different world. International news broadcasting was dominated by the BBC and CNN, who typically presented news from a Western perspective. They did not always cover news in Asia comprehensively, and when they did, often failed to capture the viewpoints and assessments relevant to our regional context. This was evident in the coverage of the Asian Financial Crisis in 1997/98.
So in the aftermath of that crisis, we saw an opportunity for the Television Corporation of Singapore (TCS) to set up its own dedicated news broadcast station, that would provide Singaporeans with accurate and real-time news, both locally and on the region. As Mr George Yeo, then Minister for Information and the Arts, put it, such a news channel would “reflect a different set of nuances and subtleties in its coverage which Asian viewers would appreciate”.
Channel NewsAsia’s launch was a success. Within a year, TCS decided that CNA had the potential to go beyond Singapore and become a news broadcaster for the region. Thus it formed CNA International to venture into the regional market. This was a bold move. The regional market indeed had potential, with a young and increasingly educated viewership. But it was also very diverse, with each country having its own language and culture. CNA International would have to go head to head with established local news channels in these countries, and be conscious of their unique domestic and political sensitivities.
Looking back, CNA has met many of its initial objectives. Today, you are the go-to channel for key news events in Asia, for instance during the recent Trump-Kim summit in Singapore, and you certainly do not lose out to BBC or CNN when covering regional news. You have become a leading regional broadcaster, reaching more than 80 million households in 29 territories, and winning over 220 international awards just in the last decade. Within Singapore, you have enabled TCS, now Mediacorp, to organise and focus their news operations under a reputable and valuable brand.
A New Operating EnvironmentAs we all know, the news media industry has changed fundamentally, and there are severe challenges ahead. The competition has intensified. With Asia’s growing role in world affairs, established news broadcasters like BBC and CNN are opening more bureaus in the region. Regional news networks like Al Jazeera and China’s CGTN now compete to establish themselves as the premier Asian news network. Even tech companies like Amazon, Netflix and Baidu are venturing into information programmes.
How audiences consume news has also completely changed. 20 years ago, people would read the newspaper in the morning for news from the preceding day, and watch the evening news broadcast on TV for an update on the day’s events. Today, however, with social media and the internet, we consume news in real time, across multiple channels and platforms. On smartphones, on social media feeds like Facebook and Twitter, or on messaging platforms like WhatsApp or 微信 (WeChat); reading it in text form, or watching video clips. We rely much less on news bulletins that feed us news in a digest form at a fixed time, instead consuming news on demand, anytime, anywhere.
Traditional news broadcasters have no choice but to adapt, and to adapt quickly. Fortunately, CNA has been making changes to its modus operandi over the years. You have already transformed yourself from a single channel television broadcaster, to a multi-platform digital news source, including television and online. And as Mr Niam just announced, soon on radio too. You have experimented with video, podcasts, interactive graphics, augmented reality, and even used drones to capture live footage, to engage viewers and enhance your storytelling. You have also branched out your offerings to produce original content, including current affairs programmes like The New Silk Road and Wild City, which have won international awards.
Dealing with Fake News
CNA’s transformation is not a moment too soon, as the media landscape has become a far more cacophonous space. CNA today is one voice amongst many. It is much harder for you to hold your audience’s attention. You have to fight to get your voice through. At the same time, your audience has a harder task to filter out the noise, and sieve out facts from the ocean of hearsay, propaganda and fake news. But it is precisely in this new environment that trusted news sources like CNA are more important than ever. Viewers, readers and listeners need to know where they can get reliable and factual news. They know that you have researched and verified your stories, and organised and presented them as objectively as possible. They look to your brand and track record, and trust you to help them make sense of how and why things are happening in order to form a coherent and accurate view of the world, and make their own well informed judgments and decisions.
Today, there is no shortage of people and groups who conduct coordinated campaigns to produce fake news to misinform and mislead, whether for financial gain, or to sow social discord, or even to radicalise people. Social media platforms propagate such fake news together with factual stories, and are either unwilling or unable to take action to block the misinformation. This has become a serious problem for many countries. Many governments are studying this closely and deciding what measures to take. In order to prevent fake news from undermining trust and confidence in institutions, and spreading hate and disharmony in society, while maintaining a balance to the freedom of expression. For example, the US has held hearings to investigate how social media platforms like Facebook were used to influence the 2016 Presidential Elections. Just last July, the UK Parliament convened an inquiry into fake news. The French too have passed a law to allow their judges to order the immediate removal of fake news from the internet during election campaigns.
In Singapore, we convened a Select Committee on Deliberate Online Falsehoods to better understand and deal with the threat. We are particularly vulnerable. We are open and English speaking, our mobile and internet penetration rate is high, and being a multiracial, multi-ethnic society, we have enduring fault lines that can be easily exploited. If we do not protect ourselves, hostile parties will find it a simple matter to turn different groups against one another and cause disorder in our society. This Select Committee made several practical recommendations for government, companies, individuals and society to work together to fortify our defences.
The Government has accepted the Select Committee’s proposals, including to pass legislation to tackle this problem. On Monday, we will be introducing in Parliament the Protection from Online Falsehoods and Manipulation Bill for the First Reading. This Bill will give Government the power to hold online news sources and platforms accountable if they proliferate deliberate online falsehoods. This includes requiring them to show corrections or display warnings about online falsehoods, so that readers or viewers can see all sides, and make up their own minds about the matter. In extreme and urgent cases, the legislation will also require online news sources to take down fake news before irreparable damage is done.
But legislation alone is not enough. It has to be supplemented by a citizenry alert to the problem of fake news, well informed of what is happening in the world around them, and provided with the means to make sound assessments of what they read and hear. It is no different from our approach to preventing crime – we have strict laws against crime, which are strictly enforced, but each of us still needs to take our own precautions, and be the front line of defence working with the police to keep Singapore crime-free.
This is why our public education initiatives are important. In schools, students are taught information literacy and cyber wellness. The National Library Board provides information literacy tips for students, adults and seniors. The Government has a fact-checking website, Factually, where the public can obtain accurate information on government policies or issues of public interest. And earlier this month, the Media Literacy Council launched a new fact-checking resource toolkit at their annual Better Internet Conference.
But spotting fake news is easier said than done. In general, people are overconfident about their ability to do so. We all think that we are well informed and smart enough to know what is real and what is fake but it is very hard. One recent survey found that 8 in 10 Singaporeans were confident in their ability to identify fake news. But when they were put to the test, and shown ten news headlines, 9 in 10 of them wrongly identified a fake news headline as being true.
This is not surprising, because fake news is not always obviously absurd, and even the most intelligent and well-trained of people can fall victim, unless they have specific knowledge about the matter. Because the whole intent of fake news is to deceive you, and to make you believe something that is plausible but is in fact false.
CNA will therefore continue to play a critical role in our society. You have got to continue to upgrade yourself. Invest in your people - your journalists, producers, cameramen and administrators so that they have the skills to work together to provide a superior news service and support your transformation. You have to build new capabilities, recruit talented professionals with new skillsets like data analysts, who can help you better understand your audiences’ preferences and interests and you have to take advantage of Singapore’s status as a media and technology hub, maintain links with the media and tech companies here, learn from them, and build partnerships and networks so that you stay always up to date on industry developments. We can be certain that fresh forms of new media, many not yet invented, will regularly emerge and force you to change the way you work and you must be quick to spot them, to respond to them, and if possible, to use them to reach audiences old and new.
The government, as one of your key partners, will work hand in hand. We share an interest in fostering an informed society through quality journalism. We will continue to work with you, to promote national and social objectives through our public service broadcast programmes. Once again, congratulations CNA on your twentieth birthday, and I wish you many more successful years ahead. Happy Birthday!
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