New licensing regime spawns protests, online and offline
Malaysians brace themselves as their govt threatens to follow suit
THE slumbering merlion is stirring: The Singapore Government’s move last week to regulate online news, including the local edition of Yahoo News, has resulted in public protests while Malaysians are watching developments closely after one of their own ministers said the Malaysian Government might follow suit.
Last Tuesday, Singapore’s Media Development Authority (MDA) announced that from June 1 onwards, “online news sites that report regularly on issues relating to Singapore and have significant reach among readers here will require an individual licence.”
In a statement, the MDA said news sites that fall under the new licensing regime would be those that “report an average of at least one article per week on Singapore’s news and current affairs over a period of two months, and are visited by at least 50,000 unique IP (Internet Protocol) addresses from Singapore each month over a period of two months.”
Online news sites are expected to comply within 24 hours to MDA’s directions to remove content that is found to be in breach of content standards, and would be required to put up a performance bond of S$50,000 (US$39,680) like all other individually-licensed broadcasters.
The MDA said these would place online news sites “on a more consistent regulatory framework with traditional news platforms which are already individually licensed.” It also identified 10 news sites, of which barring Yahoo News, are all operated by the state-owned or –controlled Singapore Press Holdings and MediaCorp.
The new ruling has got Singapore’s civil society up in arms, with an online petition having already gathered more than 2,000 signatures, and with many planning to hold a public rally on June 8 to protest the ruling, all under the ‘Free My Internet’ movement.
While Malaysia and Singapore enjoy close, albeit at times contentious, ties, the ruling went largely ignored by Malaysians until newly-minted Communications and Multimedia Minister Ahmad Shabery Cheek said that the Malaysian Government is also mulling the same.
Saying that social media has become mainstream media, he said that Malaysia was studying the possibility but “must see how it doesn't go against our principles,” he was quoted as saying by independent online news portal Malaysiakini.
“Now that (Singapore,) a country that people see as more sophisticated, has come up with the regulation, we will look into its feasibility,” he said.
Singapore rule ‘perplexing’
Civil society advocate and media watchdog Publichouse.sg described the new ruling as “symptomatic of a government which continues to be out of touch with the ground” and said that the Singaporean Government was “reneging on its promise of adopting 'a balanced and light-touch approach' to the Internet.”
“In this year's Freedom of The Press report published by Freedom House, Singapore's press freedom was rated 'Not Free' and was ranked 153rd in the world, tied with Afghanistan, Iraq and Qatar,” it said in a statement on its website.
“We urge the Government to rethink these new regulations so that Singapore does not continue being a first-world country with third-world freedom for free expression,” it added.
“The new MDA ruling is perplexing, at best,” said Abdul Rahman Mohd Said (pic), a former technology journalist and public relations consultant who has been following the issue.
“News (in Singapore) has never been contentious, and the portals identified have never before crossed the Government’s line. At the same time, MDA has said blog sites are also not covered by the ruling – yet, it is blogs and websites featuring opinions (such as The Online Citizen) that have been the subject of action by politicians.
“I suspect it is not the news per se that the MDA is targeting, but the readers’ comments to news stories, many of which tend to be vitriolic and virulently anti-government. This will probably be the target of any action taken on the news sites to remove any content the Government deems ‘undesirable’,” he added.
Singapore is fast establishing itself as the regional technology startup hub, and is aspiring to be an international hub for digital media as well. How will such a ruling affect such aspirations?
“They do not bode well for the development of a vibrant media industry,” said Abdul Rahman, one of the founding editors of Computerworld, and who headed the South-East Asian edition between 1984 and 1987. In 1988, he started Maxinfo Communications, one of the first public relations consultancies in the region to focus on the IT industry. He returned to journalism in 2008 but is now retired.
“The media industry thrives on creativity and innovation, as well the investment by, and participation of, world-class players.
“That requires an operating environment with few legal or regulatory strictures. We’ve gone a long way in opening up the industry since the mid-1990s,” he said. “I fear these new regulations may be a big step backwards.”
While Yahoo Singapore has not released an official statement yet, saying it had to see the licence requirements, a former employee went on the record to speak against the clampdown.
Siew Kum Hong, a former nominated Member of Parliament and activist, and also general counsel of Yahoo! Southeast Asia up to October 2012, noted that his former employer was the only news site not under state control.
“This will inevitably lead to speculation that this regulatory action is aimed directly at Yahoo!, with the goal of ensuring that the Government has direct or indirect control or influence over all major online news outlets in Singapore,” he wrote.
The online petition notes that freedom of speech is guaranteed under Article 14 of the Singapore Constitution except under special circumstances, such as when national security is threatened.
Next page: A tale of two struggling governments