Why Singapore’s crackdown on online news reporting is a mistake

Siew Kum HongIn this guest post, Siew Kum Hong, the former general counsel for Yahoo! Southeast Asia, speaks out against the Singapore government’s clamp-down on online news reporting, announced on Tuesday.

My sense is that for a long time now, the Singapore government has been looking for a way to give itself the power to censor the internet, in the same way that it has the power to censor offline media.

It may choose to exercise that power sparingly; but the mere possibility of censorship creates a strong chilling effect.

This new regulation is a mistake, and reinforces the perception that Singapore is a repressive place — which is precisely the wrong message to be sending to a globalised and networked world, when you are trying to build an innovative and creative economy where freedom of thought is so essential.

This is a significant retreat from the “light touch” approach to internet censorship that the Singapore government has espoused since the late 1990s.

We have gone from being arguably the first country in the world to gazette a socio-political community blog as a “political association” (by this I mean The Online Citizen), to being probably the first democratic country in the world to require websites to post a significant monetary bond before they can continue publishing.

While the Media Development Authority has sought to frame it as establishing regulatory parity between online and offline news outlets, the details available to date show otherwise.

Most notably, the MDA now has the power to order online news sites to remove purportedly illegal content within 24 hours, failing which the site stands to lose its $50,000 bond.

But there is no equivalent to this for newspapers, for example; if the Straits Times publishes an article that is prohibited under MDA guidelines, the Straits Times is not obligated to recall all unsold copies within 24 hours.

More fundamentally, the power to compel content removal is simply the power to censor outright. If the intent was to ensure responsible or accurate reporting, then surely the MDA should have chosen to include the power to order the publication of an update or correction as well. But this does not seem to be the case, at least based on the MDA’s own announcement.

Now that the government has announced this, the damage has been done. But the MDA can still mitigate this by clearly affirming that this regulation will cover only commercially-operated sites, and not true citizen-operated sites like The Online Citizen and The Real Singapore. That will go a long way towards addressing the perception that this measure is solely intended to bring the internet to heel, so to speak.

Now, I can’t speak for what Yahoo! should or might do, as the license conditions have not been published. I am a little surprised that MDA chose to make the announcement without also publishing the license conditions — this creates uncertainty and lacks transparency.

It is however notable that of the 10 sites [which are: Asiaone.com, Businesstimes.com.sg, Channelnewsasia.com, Omy.sg, Sg.news.yahoo.com, Stomp.com.sg, Straitstimes.com, Tnp.sg, Todayonline.com and Zaobao.com], Yahoo! Singapore was the only site that is not operated by a government-controlled or -owned company (so Singapore Press Holdings and MediaCorp).

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.

Siew Kum Hong is a former Nominated Member of Parliament, activist and corporate counsel. He was the general counsel of Yahoo! Southeast Asia up to October 2012, but did not work on this matter. He wrote this piece in his personal capacity

*The MDA did not comment about this article, but its response to criticisms about its new rules for online publishers can be read on its Facebook page. A news story published on Mumbrella today mentions the MDA’s assertion that the new rules were not intended to impose on internet freedoms in Singapore.


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