Breakfast Network closure marks end of ‘light touch’ internet regulation in Singapore, says academic

The closure of Singapore online news site the Breakfast Network, announced yesterday, has been described as “a landmark event in the brief history of online regulation” in the citystate.

The plug was pulled on the Breakfast Network after pressure from Singapore’s media regulator to get a media licence, which BN founder Bertha Henson declined to do.

Singaporean academic Cherian George, who is an associate professor at the Wee Kim Wee School of Communication and Information at Nanyang Technological University, wrote on his blog that the closure of BN – the first political site to be banned in 17 years – marked the end of light-touch internet regulation in the citystate.

“Through the government’s clumsy handling of one site that didn’t even pose a serious threat, Singapore has now stumbled into the company of authoritarian regimes that are prepared to outlaw politically inconvenient blogs,” wrote George.

“Although it could prove to be an unintended anomaly, the Breakfast Network’s death by red tape is nonetheless a landmark event in the brief history of online regulation,” he said.

George also said that that end of the Breakfast Network, as one Facebook poster wrote, represents “more a fumble in execution than a change in policy” on the part of media regulator, the Media Development Authority.

“Whatever the case, a threshold has been crossed. Goodbye “light touch”. It was nice knowing you,” he said.

The MDA responded to George, refuting many of the claims in his article.

The MDA’s response in full:

Dear Mr Cherian George,

1.      We refer to your 10 December commentary, “Online freedom: time to revise the Singapore report card”.

2.      The Breakfast Network was asked to register because it had ceased to be a personal blog or website, but had incorporated itself as the Breakfast Network Pte Ltd (BNPL). As a corporate entity, Breakfast Network Pte Ltd has a greater possibility of coming under foreign influence via foreign funding. This registration requirement is simply to ensure that Breakfast Network will not receive foreign funding.

3.      You declare that The Breakfast Network shut down due to “red tape” and “unnecessarily onerous registration”. We would like to clarify that this is not so.

The Breakfast Network shut down because its editor and owner chose not to register, as required by MDA. Ms Henson claimed the requirements were onerous, citing the need to register volunteer contributors to her site. MDA issued a statement on 13 Dec 2013, refuting her claim. At no point was Ms Henson told that contributors needed to also register. She was only told that editors, including pro bono editors, had to register. As for the reporting of sources of revenue, MDA informed Ms Henson that she could suggest alternative ways of providing the required information.

4.      Secondly, nothing has changed for Internet Content Providers. They continue to operate and publish under the existing class licence framework which has been in place since 1996. Under this framework, certain groups such as political associations and political websites have always been required to register with the MDA.  However, up until now, the registration requirement did not come with an undertaking not to receive foreign funds.  This is because up until now, the political websites which had to register were also gazetted as political associations, which meant that they were already prohibited from receiving foreign funds under the Political Donations Act.

5.      You also characterise the registration process as an exercise for the Breakfast Network to “persuade regulators they deserve the right to publish before they are allowed to do so”. This is an astounding description. The registration merely requires the provision of names of persons involved in the provision, management and/or operation of the Breakfast Network, and an undertaking by them not to receive foreign funding.

6.      Our internet regulations have not changed.  Neither has our long standing principle that politics should remain a matter for Singaporeans and Singapore only.

In the Reporters Without Borders press freedom index, Singapore ranks 149th out of 179 countries, just above Iraq and Myanmar.


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