Singapore, home to some five million people of largely diverse backgrounds, is reckoned by many as a financial hub, major Asian Internet node and safe environment to be. But with the Media Development Authority (MDA)’s new gazetted rule of licensing the triple Ws made us wonder if using the word “stifled” would be more accurate.
The rule detailed in this press release published in late May specified that “online news sites that report regularly on issues relating to Singapore and have significant reach among readers here will require an individual licence from the MDA.”
The media regulatory arm of the government will determine these sites by the number of Singapore news and current affairs-related articles these content creators publish per week over a period of two months, and their traffic which should go up to a minimum of 50,000 unique IP addresses from the city-state every month. Their purpose in doing this is to “place [the news sites] on a more consistent regulatory framework with traditional news platforms which are already individually licensed.”
This new licensing scheme will allow MDA to clamp down on what is “prohibited content” in the existing Internet Code of Practice. But what exactly is prohibited content? Since the sales of chewing gum is not allowed here in Singapore, is reportage about it then prohibited as well? Pardon the jest, but here’s the real joke in clause 4: (1) Prohibited material is material that is objectionable on the grounds of public interest, public morality, public order, public security, national harmony, or is otherwise prohibited by applicable Singapore laws.
Foreign media and entities like to remember the popular tourist and expat destination as a “fine” city. Make no mistake about this: there is a monetary penalty attached to this licensing. MDA notes: “The only other additional requirement is that online news sites are required to put up a performance bond like all other individually-licensed broadcasters, and the sum of $50,000 is consistent with that required of niche TV broadcasters.” MDA has also listed down 10 news sites which has fallen under this requirement, namely:
These online news sites are then “expected to comply within 24 hours to MDA’s directions to remove content that is found to be in breach of content standards.” No, wait, let me get this straight. Firstly, MDA, I would like to pose a question to you: do you know how busy writers or editors are at a news organization? It is frustrating to write, say, your magnum opus (which unfortunately was found objectionable on the ground of public interest, public morality, public order, public security, national harmony, or is other prohibited by applicable Singapore laws) which most members of public would gladly read, appreciate and share, and have it removed in just 24 hours. As vague as it can get, public interest, morality, order, security and harmony are all subjective terms.
Earlier this year, I spotted a MDA bypass which allows anyone in Singapore to go on porn sites. If you are unfamiliar with Singapore’s plethora of laws and regulations, here’s a lesson: streaming porn is okay but possession or production is not. That being said, the gatekeepers want to cover the people’s eyes with a opaque cotton hankie, showing a “The site you are viewing is prohibited…” message whenever you click on a web link which is in their “Bad for Singaporeans” list of content. Back in film and media school, the lecturers would say with a tinge of disdain that MDA is a “light-touch regulator”. Those words remind me of the nurse who would keep repeating that an injection would only hurt as much as an ant’s bite. If porn is something the public is very interested about, but falls under against public interest, does that mean I should take it down whenever the government tells me to?
This cripples the writer and leads them down a path of needless self-censorship. Don’t get me wrong: certain forms self-censorship is great, like when publications blank out the names of the parents of a crook in pursuit of good taste. However, what happens when journalists, especially those on the current affairs beat, fall to pleasuring and protecting the ones in power is not only wasteful and disgraceful of both their writing abilities and position to report objectively.
Singaporeans rally to show that they care about the freedom of speech
Last Saturday, over 2,500 Singaporeans gathered at Speakers’ Corner (Hong Lim Park) to voice out against this new gazetted rule which, personally, is in itself against public interest. For a seemingly democratic country ranked 149th out of 179 countries for its Press Freedom Index last year, Singaporeans sure made full use of this opportunity to tell everyone that they care about their freedom of speech (which is a fundamental article under the Constitution).
This movement, titled “Free My Internet”, was organized by the blogging community which includes online news sites not under the licensing scheme: The Online Citizen and Public House. Its tagline reads: “Read the right things”. It is in itself a reference to a comment made by the Minister of Communications and Information, Yaacob Ibrahim that this law is in place to help Singaporeans read the “right” things.
Often lauded for its stellar education system and high literacy rate, the “little red dot” is now just a land where people have no judgment as to what is right and wrong. Well, isn’t that right, Singaporeans have been reading the wrong things! Moreover, after not being able to speak anywhere else, thus the need to have a corner just for these sort of peaceful protests, these residents and citizens from all walks of life need the Internet to voice their opinion and say their piece.
At the rally, several prominent socio-political bloggers, like Andrew Loh, Richard Wan and Roy Ngerng, spoke out with clarity against this new law and asked for it to be rescind. According to The Online Citizen, the protest was “preceded by a blackout of more than 150 participating blogs and a petition to rescind the new rules which has garnered more than 4,000 signatures.”
Even though many suggested that this law is only for the ten aforementioned news sites, bloggers and other smaller independent news sites do not agree. One recurring theme was that the government might take advantage of the vague definitions to clamp down on whatever they do not agree with. Roy Ngerng, blogger at Heart Truths, spoke: If the government had bothered to speak to anyone of us, we would have told them, “Who says we want articles to be taken down?” [...] When there are too many sites which are licensed, will we still be able to read? Will we still be able to know what is going on in Singapore? Will we still have a stake in our own country?”
One pertinent point brought up by many of the speakers questioned the necessity of the new rule. After all, known as a “fine” city, Singapore already has its full trove of laws including the Sedition Act which will already taken any content creator with contemptuous intent to court, be it offline or online. Why the need to have one more? Who exactly are they protecting — the people, or something else?
Choo Zheng Xi, consulting editor and co-founder of The Online Citizen also told e27 that gauging from the crowd, Singaporeans do care about free speech. “[There's] young to old, different ethnicities, there are families. It is very heartening.” However, does he think that the MDA would really rescind this law? He said, “Well, we hope for the best, and we still trust our elected members of parliament to do what is right.”
He added that by telling people to “read the right things”, it is a sign that the government does not trust their own to find out for themselves what is right and wrong. “That’s very dangerous because obviously what the government thinks is right or good for Singapore might not always be consistent with what Singaporeans think is right for themselves.” Being trained in law, I asked him what he thought of the broad definitions which he concluded, “Bad law. Just flat out bad law.”
Don’t worry, just read e27.co for the right things.
Featured Image Credit: Roger Poh