Oh what a tangled Web

Eons ago, an Invisible Magic Friend raised some luscious, fertile trees yet thought it inappropriate to share their goodness. So he told his young ‘uns to lay off, or risk death.

But seriously, who could turn down something so expressedly forbidden?

Centuries ago, an Infallible One leered at foul literature that warped the minds of children and weakened the resolve of congregations. So he commissioned what became the Index Librorum Prohibitorum, or the ‘List of Prohibited Books’.

But seriously, who could pass up on reading Bacon, Descartes, Galileo, Hugo, Kant, Locke, Rousseau, Sartre, or Voltaire?

Years ago, a Diva scorned a website’s publishing of an aerial photograph of her luxurious seaside mansion. So she sued the offending site and photographer to get them to remove the image.

But seriously, who gave a damn about her house before she inadvertently kicked up an Internet maelstrom?

Now, well into the 21st century and cognisant of earlier follies of the forbidden fruit, the grandfather of all bestsellers lists and the Streisand effect, Singapore’s Minitrue (officially the Media Development Authority) ought to know better, right?

Not on evidence from the past fortnight.

Last Monday (12 July), they banned a YouTube video of ex-political detainee Dr Lim Hock Siew delivering a speech, shot by local filmmaker Martyn See, claiming it was “against the public interest”.

They then asked local bookshops to pull from their shelves a book by British author Alan Shadrake, which discusses Singapore’s implementation of the death penalty. But the book was not officially banned.

On Friday (17 July), they filed a police report against Shadrake, which led on Sunday to his arrest on charges on criminal defamation and contempt of court.

But each move to remove ‘offending’ literature from the official canon would be met by an opposite, although not equal, force.

While See has complied with MDA’s orders, his film has garnered thousands of additional views and found refuge on other video sharing sites like Vimeo. Bloggers and activists cried foul over the ban, and one even transcribed Dr Lim’s speech. Mainstream news coverage in all likelihood raised more awareness. Similarly, Shadrake and his book now has a worldwide audience (albeit fleeting as always), as foreign news media – British press among them – caught on and obliged with bad press.

Maybe the government is insecure and losing control – another blogger thinks so – following its troubles over foreign workers, inflation and floods. Perhaps the local media authority is abysmally feckless at grasping the dynamics of the Internet. These views may be gratifying, even mildly amusing. But there is another side to the looking glass.

Ask not why the government is recently so error-prone; ask why they are so eagerly cracking the whip, despite the backlash.

Lacking a “Great Firewall”, blowbacks were bound to happen – as John Gilmore scoffed nearly two decades ago: “The Net interprets censorship as damage and routes around it.” They must know that.

The bad timing – two major moves in two weeks – could just be coincidence. The strength of the gestures, however, is quite deliberate. Charging someone with criminal defamation, as pointed out by others, is a severe move – the political and media interest it would elicit must have been considered. Banning a film that is merely an unadulterated record of a speech is peculiar – since Dr Lim himself was not rapped – but the circumnavigation of the ban must have been foreseen.

Oversight? Mistakes? Probably not. Rather, this past fortnight marked demonstrations by the government of its confidence in withstanding, even disarming, disaggregated dissent.

Political censorship in the Internet age may seem arcane. But is it? Turn this view on its head and ask, for example, what has WikiLeaks – much lauded for its aspirations and good work in promoting freedom of information – achieved in terms actual political change? Not a whole lot, it seems.

Guantánamo Bay standard operating procedures? Obama still can’t shut that damn place down.

Sarah Palin’s email messages? Ok, she lost the election. But since then she’s established herself as a leading right-wing rabble-rouser, secured a segment on Fox News, and penned a New York Times #1 bestseller.

Trafigura’s Minton report? Carter Ruck’s super-injunction was eventually modified only because of public uproar in response to the Guardian’s revelation of the gag order. The BBC eventually retracted its allegations that Trafigura’s toxic waste dumping had caused deaths. The 30,000 Ivorian victims received a measly US$1,547 each in compensation (the oil trader already paid US$200 million to the Côte d’Ivoire government in 2007).

The Baghdad Apache airstrike video? Cathartic uproar, no inquiry to date, and a suspected whistleblower arrested.

Behold the power of the Internet?

The Web in itself cannot effect major political change. It doesn’t level a uneven political playing field. It doesn’t negate martial power. It is blind, lending its potential to the orthodox and the radical. If it were the messianic force some imagine it to be, the likes of the Green Movement, the pro-Palestinian Boycott, Divestment and Sanctions drive and even Project Chanology – all heavily reliant on Web-based mobilisation and PR – would have had far more joy by now.

The Singapore government is well aware of this. They’re not making “mistakes”. They do it because they can get away with it.

Then again, I may be wrong. The MDA could well be perpetually – in Def Leppard parlance – “two steps behind“.

It was certainly disconnected enough in 2007 to think a viral video – innocuously titled ‘MDA Upper Management Rap‘ – might do it some favours. A Guardian reviewer recovered sufficiently to pass pithy comment:

13 MDA Upper Management ‘Rap’
Singapore’s Media Development Authority makes a completely cringe-worthy rap video – complete with CEO – extolling its virtues. Read the (YouTube) postings.

Go on. It only takes four minutes of your precious time…to remind you, that they’ll be two steps behind.

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~ by spiegel2071 on July 22, 2010.

One Response to “Oh what a tangled Web”

  1. gd insight chuns. power of a virtual public sphere is over hypped, unless it can bring the change to physical spaces. for change to take place, we need ppl to concretise their actions and not hide behind desks hmm. depends on how the media further develops, always a push and pull situation between the public and a dictatorial state i guess.

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