Singapore: Internet freedom under threat

Is the government silencing the opposition by introducing the new licensing regime to control internet freedom?

Singapore's mainstream media has been licensed and regulated for years [AFP]

Alarm bells rang among the Singaporean online community as the government revealed a new licensing scheme for news websites that could potentially give a heavy blow to grassroots citizen journalism.

The Media Development Authority (MDA) has announced that Singaporean news websites with about 50,000 unique hits a month will now require individual licences to operate.

These licenses come with a 50,000-Singapore dollar (US $39,500) “performance bond” and a commitment to take down anything deemed to be in breach of content standards within 24 hours.

Ten websites were singled out in the MDA’s announcement as being in need of individual licences. Only one of them – Yahoo! Singapore – does not belong to a local mainstream media outlet. Yet the outcry among Singaporeans has shown that no one really believes the government will stop at these ten.

Singapore’s mainstream media has been licensed and regulated for years. Under the Newspaper and Printing Presses Act (NPPA) and the Broadcasting Act, the government has had the power to grant or deny permits to operate, as well as to appoint management shareholders.

This has led to a suppressed mainstream media reduced to favouring the state narrative in much of its coverage, constantly aware of its “accountability” to the government. The memoir of Cheong Yip Seng, former editor-in-chief of Singapore’s major newspaper The Straits Times, is just one chronicle of government interference in the media.

The advent of the internet shifted the balance. Singaporeans, used to the top-down method of communication, found themselves able to go from passive consumers to active producers of news, commentary and analysis. Rather than wait for the official take, it was now much easier for concerned citizens to participate.

But this democratisation of content production and discussion is now under threat from the new licensing regime. While commercial media outlets might be able to pay the hefty “performance bond”, it is difficult to think of a community blog that would be able to come up with such a sum. Without the ability to get a licence, these blogs would then have to shut down, depriving the public of both an information channel and a space to express themselves.

Will they, won’t they?

The MDA has clarified on its Facebook page that an “individual publishing views on current affairs and trends on his/her personal website or blog does not amount to news reporting” and would therefore not be required to apply for a licence.

However, it had previously told Reuters that it would keep an eye on blogs and “evaluate them accordingly”. Its clarification on individual blogs also did not address the issue of community blogs, set up by groups of citizen journalists.

The Online Citizen (TOC), one of the more prominent socio-political blogs in Singapore, has released statements indicating that it fulfils the criteria set forward by the MDA. However, the MDA claims that TOC does not fulfil the criteria, adding, “Should MDA determine later that it ought to be individually licensed, it will be notified”. 

We want to protect the interest of the ordinary Singaporean. As long as they go online to read the news I think it's important to make sure that they read the 'right thing', insofar as if there's an event yesterday it is reported accurately.

by Dr Yaacob Ibrahim, Minister for Communications and Information

It is a signal that the MDA wields the discretion in determining who does or does not fall within the stipulated criteria. This is worrying, especially when crucial definitions – such as what would make a website a news site – are kept disconcertingly broad. The MDA defines a “news programme” as “any programme (whether or not the programme is presenter-based and whether or not the programme is provided by a third party) containing any news, intelligence, report of occurrence, or any matter of public interest, about any social, economic, political, cultural, artistic, sporting, scientific or any other aspect of Singapore in any language (whether paid or free and whether at regular interval or otherwise) but does not include any programme produced by or on behalf of the Government.”

Similarly, the definition of “prohibited content” as set out in the MDA’s Internet Code of Practice is just as opaque. It states that any material deemed “objectionable on the grounds of public interest, public morality, public order, public security, national harmony, or is otherwise prohibited by applicable Singapore laws” could be banned.

Deliberate or not, this vagueness causes no end of uncertainty for Singaporean bloggers. Unable to discern how and when the MDA makes its decisions, these new regulations become a shadow that hangs over everyone. The possibility of a “chilling effect” is all too real.

As retired journalist Bertha Henson – now a blogger with Breakfast Network – writes: “What should I do now? Odd that my fellow members on Breakfast Network and I would have to think about how NOT to make ourselves so popular that we would breach the 50,000 threshold. Even if we have $50,000 to spare, it’s not nice to have to wonder about phone calls in the night or an email to demand that a post be deleted. And it’s not nice to have to second guess what the [Government] (or which god in which department) thinks about this post or that and that particular god-person’s threshold of ‘sensitivity’.”

A political tool

While the government continues to insist that the new licensing scheme is being put in place to create more “consistency” in the regulation of print, broadcast and online media, the potential for these licences to be used as political tools is obvious.

The mainstream media can usually be counted on to stay fairly close to the government line, but the accessibility of online media has given citizens an opportunity to express themselves. This has led to more criticism of the state, and the political awakening of many “apathetic” Singaporeans.

Alternative views have been shared freely online, on blogs and social media, which very likely led to an increase in support for alternative political parties. Opposition politicians, previously painted as social pariahs, are now seen in a different light, and the fear of being identified as an opposition supporter has been significantly reduced. In fact, the ruling People’s Action Party (PAP) had never performed as badly as it did in the last general election in 2011, where it received 60 percent of the vote.

This is why the latest media regulation has been interpreted as a government attempt to cling on to power by any means necessary. By introducing a new licensing regime that could effectively shut down socio-political blogs – many of which tend to be critical of the incumbent party – the PAP is seen as censoring the internet and silencing the opposition.

The government has so far been unsuccessful in fighting that perception. The Minister for Communications and Information, Dr Yaacob Ibrahim, has indicated the government’s intention to amend the Broadcasting Act to include overseas-based websites that write about Singapore. In an interview with the BBC, he said: “We want to protect the interest of the ordinary Singaporean. As long as they go online to read the news I think it’s important to make sure that they read the ‘right thing’, insofar as if there’s an event yesterday it is reported accurately.”

It is a situation that brings little satisfaction to anyone. The backlash can already be felt. Singaporean bloggers have already come together to launch the #FreeMyInternet campaign, calling for an online blackout in the run up to a protest demanding the government to withdraw licensing. The government was mistaken if it had thought that it could seize control of the internet without any outcry, and this licensing regime could be causing headache on both sides for quite a while yet.

Kirsten Han is a freelance journalist and blogger from Singapore, with an interest in human rights and social justice issues. She is currently a Master’s student in Journalism, Media and Communication at Cardiff University.

Follow her on Twitter: @kixes