The challenges of running an independent news website in Singapore on a shoestring budget as the government continues to squeeze press freedom were discussed by freelance journalist and editor Kirsten Han.
Fresh from her appearance on the Fighting Fake News In Asia panel at the 3rd FCC Journalism Conference on April 14, Han told of her battle with Singapore’s accounting and corporate regulatory authority to have New Naratif, the website of which she is editor-in-chief, registered as a subsidiary company. Currently, the fledgling news operation is owned by Observatory Southeast Asia Ltd (OSEA UK), a company incorporated in the United Kingdom.
Singapore’s Accounting and Corporate Regulatory Authority (Acra) has rejected the application, saying it “would amount to allowing a foreign entity or foreigners to fund and influence political activities in Singapore”. Acra added that granting the application would be “contrary to Singapore’s national interests”.
New Naratif, launched in September 2017, is subscriber-funded and has 457 members in 17 different countries. It describes itself as a “platform for journalism, art, research, and community-building for the people of this region” and seeks to “go deeper” than rival news organisations covering Southeast Asia.
“We’re not interested in reporting events,” Han said, adding that she left the day-to-day news coverage to rivals, instead opting for providing different perspectives and insights on a story. “If we cannot beat them on their own turf, we will take the turf they cannot stand on,” she added.
New Naratif is non-profit and operates on a tiny budget. It relies heavily on freelancers, who, Han said, get paid before the editors pay themselves. She said she doesn’t believe in not paying contributors as is common practice with some news organisations. The site takes on staff with no journalism experience because “we want to get more local writers writing about Southeast Asia”, Han said.
Singapore ranked #151 in last year’s World Press Freedom Index, an annual survey produced by Reporters Without Borders (RSF), which described the country as having an intolerant government, and self-censorship. It also highlighted various legislation it believes will stifle independent reporting, including a proposed law that would allow the police to search homes and electronic devices without a warrant, posing “a grave threat to the confidentiality of journalists’ sources”.
But Han said she is undeterred: “We will keep publishing for as long as we can,” she said.
Clarification: An earlier version of this article incorrectly stated that New Naratif had 3,500 members. We apologise for the error.