Opinion

Why are Singapore’s bloggers making such a fuss about new rules for online reporting?

Rob O'BrienIn this guest post, Rob O’Brien reckons the protest against the new rules for online news shows the level of suspicion that rules Singapore’s blogosphere.

A $50,000 ‘performance bond’ and a 24-hour notice for the removal of inappropriate content from news websites, and the bloggers of Singapore say ‘No.’

The announcement of a new license for a number of online news sites in the city state has stirred a #FreeMyInternet campaign on social networking sites and a blogger blackout.

But it seems to say more about the climate of suspicion that rules the blogosphere.

The new license applies to news sites that report at least one article a week on news related only to Singapore over a period of two months, and have at least 50,000 unique visitors over the same period. To the average Singaporean, it doesn’t mean a lot: ‘Meh, what difference will it make?’

There are issues to do with ‘what is a news site’. But the short answer is that it doesn’t actually make a huge difference at all – now – to the way Singapore’s journalists operate.

The logic goes that most of the selected news sites – with the exception of Yahoo! – fall under the umbrella of Singapore Press Holdings, a fairly compliant media organisation.

So why would bloggers, of all people, make such a a fuss?

Who really cares whether the Peeping Tom portal, STOMP, loses a few of its stories under this new license? Shouldn’t we be thankful that the Media Development Authority has decided to start removing all of that content being parked online under the banner of journalism?

The answer is, of course, no.

Online citizens and bloggers see any kind of license as a ‘roadmap’ to further clampdowns on alternative news sites such as The Online Citizen, The Public House and the like – important sites that, like poly filler, plug the holes in what is seen as a porous journalism landscape. They see this as ‘Step 1’ in the lowering down of the giant thumb onto the forehead of the blogosphere.

So the bloggers – more than 100 of them by all accounts – who shut down their websites this week, will take to the streets tomorrow to protest not what the MDA framework covers today, but what they fear it might be covering tomorrow. It’s the Minority Report of protests.

Whichever way you chose to slice it, there’s a bigger story about Singapore’s media landscape today, and that is that bloggers rather than journalists are its guardians of media plurality and online freedom of speech.

Journalists take their lead from them now, bloggers and online citizens drive the news cycle: they’ve moved further and further beyond journalists in generating debate and public interest. Which is probably why they live in a state of near panic that the thumb is descending.

It’s certainly worth asking why suddenly a license is necessary for a collection of news sites which have been publishing online for years without content removal requests.

This could have been done ages ago.

But to use a Game of Thrones reference, the Iron Throne makes the decisions, and in this instance no one has lost their head. Bloggers simply see this as another opportunity to throw dung at King Joffrey, before his next foray into online regulation.

Rob O’Brien is a media specialist at Weber Shandwick in Singapore. He is a former journalist, an author of his own blog and tweets at @robobr7

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