Bloomberg News and the Tradition of Self-Censorship
Recently Bloomberg News has been widely criticised for allegedly censoring its own journalists in order not to upset the Chinese government. According to the New York Times, Bloomberg decided not to publish an investigative report that examined the financial ties between business tycoons and Chinese politicians. It appears that Bloomberg didn’t want to risk alienating Beijing’s leaders. Following previous reports by Western media that investigated the private finances of CCP cadres, the Chinese government had already signalled that a red line had been crossed. As a result, several journalists had been denied resident visas, and websites such as Bloomberg’s had been blocked.
After Bloomberg’s self-censorship was revealed, a veteran China reporter, Michael Forsythe, was suspended because he was suspected of having leaked information concerning Bloomberg’s move not to publish the article on which he had been working for months.
Meanwhile Bloomberg has denied the allegations. However, this is not the first case of Bloomberg censoring itself in order not to infuriate certain countries’ political leaders. One less known example of such practices occurred a few years ago in Singapore.
Despite being a democracy based on British common law, Singapore, led by the People’s Action Party since 1963, has always had a difficult relationship with free media. In fact, a set of laws and regulations make sure that the Singaporean press and cyberspace are subjected to a high degree of government supervision.
Foreign media outlets, too, have been confronted with the power of the Singaporean establishment. Usually, Singaporean politicians will file lawsuits for defamation against journalists or media groups. From the viewpoint of Singapore’s politicians, suing people who damaged their image is a legitimate way of defending their reputation against baseless accusations that may compromise the good name of the government.
Bloomberg News belongs to those foreign media which had to practice self-censorship in order to survive in Singapore. In Transparency and Authoritarian Rule in Southeast Asia, Gerry Rodan relates how Bloomberg adjusted itself to the demands by Singapore’s leadership:
[I]t was the demonstration effect of continued recourse to legal action, or threats thereof, that was arguably the most potent factor in reinforcing the need to be cautious in the way business matters were reported – especially as this involved the GLCs [government linked companies]… This applied equally to online reporting as it did to hardcopy newspapers and magazines. Accordingly, an article on the Bloomberg.com site, ‘How Far Can Singapore Inc. Get Out of Business’, by Patrick Smith on 4 August 2002 promptly resulted in threatened defamation actions by Senior Minister Lee Kuan Yew, Prime Minister Goh Chok Tong and Deputy Prime Minister Lee Hsien Loong. The matter was almost as quickly defused by an out-of-court settlement of S$595,000 and an apology on the Bloomberg web site for any insinuation of nepotism in the appointment of the Deputy Prime Minister’s wife, Ho Ching, to the new executive directorship of Temasek Holdings … (Rodan 2005, pp. 87-88).
Bloomberg’s chief editor Matthew Winkler explained that behind the decision was the concern that if Bloomberg lost the case this would threaten the jobs of 180 employees and a readership of 2,695 people in Singapore. Since no foreign publisher has ever successfully defended a libel suit against a Singaporean politician Bloomberg feared that it would not win the case. Subsequently, the controversial article was removed from the website and all other websites that had made use of it. Interestingly, Matthew Winkler is still Bloomberg’s chief editor, and he was also involved in the recent case of self-censorship in China. The rationale behind the Singapore and China case seems to be exactly the same (ibid., p. 88).
The question now is: how should Western media react to government pressure? Is it better to cooperate in order to keep on working in those countries? Or should they quit altogether, perhaps leaving the job to free-lance journalists or independent news media?