SINGAPORE ATTRACTS MEDIA DESPITE RULES

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SINGAPORE-Strict broadcasting legislation tightening Sing-apore's already highly restricted media environment isn't deterring major media companies from opening headquarters here.

Instead, HBO, Discovery Network, ESPN and Asia Business News are continuing to set up shop in Singapore, lured by government tax breaks and a willingness to grant licenses quickly to satellite companies. MTV recently decided to locate its regional base in Singapore, and NBC is opening a news bureau here.

The law, passed in August, sets up a new Singapore Broadcasting Authority with power to ban a service telecast to Singapore from abroad if it believes the content "prejudices the public interest, order or national harmony or offends against good taste or decency."

Under the law, it is now an offense incurring a fine of up to $40,000 or three years imprisonment to support the banned service by advertising on it, to sell any reception equipment for the channel such as dishes and decoders and to publicize program listings.

The law adds another wrinkle to Singapore's already combative stance with the media, including lawsuits and other punitive actions against international publishers that have run stories putting the government in an unflattering light.

But neither has stopped Asia Business News, which beams its reports by satellite across Asia from China to India, introduced last year with Singapore as its headquarters.

Both ABN and MTV cite the relative ease of getting an uplink license in Singapore, compared with Hong Kong, as a key factor in choosing this location. The government, seeking to make Sing-apore an information hub, is trying to swing the balance to the island state by cutting red tape for media companies.

Singapore, said MTV Networks Chairman-CEO Tom Freston, "is going out of its way to be nice to broadcasters these days."

Christopher Graves, ABN managing editor, said Hong Kong and Singapore were the two leading candidates when the company looked for a headquarters site two years ago. "Getting a license [in Hong Kong] to uplink looked like it was going to be difficult, if not impossible-certainly for the short term."

He added that rapid escalation of rent and the cost of living didn't bode well for Hong Kong. Rent in the building where ABN's Hong Kong bureau was located had gone up 150% in 10 months, he said, adding, "It's still a lot harder to lure people to your company from all over Asia if their pay is being eroded every single day."

NBC has opted for Hong Kong as the headquarters for ANBC satellite business news service but Singapore will be the base for one of six Asian news bureaus. This could provide NBC with the basis for alternative headquarters if problems arise as Hong Kong moves back under Chinese sovereignty in 1997.

Those problems include the nagging question of whether Hong Kong will adopt China's censorship policies. That, in turn, makes Singapore even more attractive.

U.K. news service Reuters, for example, is looking at the possibility of moving its regional editorial base from Hong Kong to Sing-apore in 1997. Singapore is already Reuters' southeast Asian headquarters for sales, marketing and technical staff.

Singapore isn't without its own problems, however. Satellite dishes are banned for private ownership, and the government shows no signs of easing its rigorous media rules.

"Censorship, a sense of what is important for Singapore, must be at the core of the establishment broadcasting media," said George Yeo, Singapore Minister for Information and the Arts. "That is why we insist on tight regulation."

Entertainment broadcasters are expected to conform to Asia's more conservative requirements. But news programs, with their wide-ranging net, have the potential to affect Singaporean sensibilities.

"Certainly it does not entice advertisers when you put any sort of sword of Damocles over their heads," said ABN's Mr. Graves. "But, by the same token, if our experience in the future is what it's been to date, there's been no interference, no second-guessing of content."

He added that telecasters are sanguine about Singapore's rules. "Playing the media game in Asia is not the same as it is in the West," he said.

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