Gov’t continues to be out of touch

By Andrew Loh

On 4 January, Prime Minister Lee Hsien Loong sent a legal letter of demand to writer and activist Alex Au to remove an article which was allegedly defamatory of Mr Lee. Mr Au was also required to publish an apology, which he complied with.

About 3 weeks later, PM Lee reportedly made the following remarks about the Internet, at the Singapore Perspectives 2013 conference held by the Institute of Policy Studies, on 28 January:

“You have views going to extremes and when people respond to their views, they may respond in an extreme way, and when people decide to disapprove of something which was inappropriate, the disapproval can also happen in an extreme way.

“It’s in the nature of the medium, the way the interactions work and that’s the reason why we think it cannot be completely left by itself.”

These set the tone for what transpired subsequently – with various ministers and the Attorney General taking legal action against certain netizens and bloggers the past few months.

The series of clampdown actions has now culminated in the set of new regulations announced by the Media Development Authority (MDA) on Tuesday. Namely, the new rules stipulate that “online news sites that report regularly on issues relating to Singapore and have significant reach among readers here will require an individual licence” from the MDA.

“Under the licensing framework, online news sites will be individually licensed if they (i) report an average of at least one article per week on Singapore’s news and current affairs 1 over a period of two months, and (ii) are visited by at least 50,000 unique IP addresses from Singapore each month over a period of two months. Currently, these sites are automatically class-licensed under the Broadcasting Act. When MDA has assessed that a site has met the criteria to be individually licensed, MDA will issue a formal notification and work with the site to move it to the new licensing framework.”

The new rules also require websites “to take down content that breaches certain standards within 24 hours of being notified.” (Straits Times)

Under the Broadcasting Act, failure to comply with regulations can result in a fine of S$200,000 and/or a 3 year jail term.

The minister overseeing these new regulations is Mr Yaacob Ibrahim, Minister for Communications and Information (MCI). Mr Yaacob explains that the new rules are to “give some form of parity between online news sites and traditional mainstream media newspapers and TV broadcasters.”

The new rules mirror somewhat the ones for “self-classification” which Mr Yaacob’s ministry introduced for the Arts in March. There, Arts groups are divided into two tiers and they are given licenses to “self-classify” their works.

“The new licence scheme comes in two tiers. All arts groups and companies can join the scheme and qualify for the first tier. Those with a good track record showing three or more years of compliance with regulations will be offered a second-tier licence.”

To ensure they exercise responsible self-classification, those in the ‘first tier’ group will have to provide a $1,000 “performance bond” signed by a guarantor.

The licences, which are valid for a one-year period, are “renewable subject to an annual review, in which the MDA will evaluate whether licensees comply with regulations and accurately classify performances.”

While the new regulations for the Internet do not adopt the same exact self-regulatory framework as that for the Arts, they apparently are aimed at getting practitioners to similarly self-regulate, to meet certain “standards” (determined by the MDA), failing which websites would be required to be licensed and to post a $50,000 “performance bond” with the authorities.

In short, the Government seems to want to force self-regulation, rather than leave it to online practitioners to decide if self-regulation is warranted, a position which it previously urged but which was dismissed by bloggers and netizens.

It is obvious that the new rules are to set and control the tone of discourse online, a concern which the Government has had for a while now. The rise of social media, as an increasing number of Singaporeans get their news online, has now prompted the Government to let go of its promised ‘light touch’ on the Internet, even though Mr Yaacob denies that the Government is reneging on this promise.

In fact, the new regulations are more insidious in that websites now sit on what is essentially a time-bomb – post a “news” article once a week for two months and reach 50,000 unique visitors a month, and the MDA sword will come down on you.

The problem here is that a website has no control over who or how many visitors will visit it. To avoid licensing, websites will have to keep constant eye on the numbers – to make sure they do not breach the numbers, if they do not want to fall under the new rules.

It is mad.

In an obvious attempt to perhaps assuage the public which might raise a howl over the new rules, the MDA statement on Tuesday lists only 10 sites which it says fall under the new framework. 9 of these sites are Government-controlled news sites. The only exception is Yahoo Singapore, which has given rise to speculation that the real targets of the regulations are the non-government linked news sites.

It is well-known among some that the Singapore government has been “concerned” about Yahoo Singapore news for a while. The site is seen as a bastion of free expression and an independent news source.

Strangely, however, the MDA told the media that popular socio-political website, The Online Citizen (TOC), “does not fall within the online licensing framework.” But it quickly added, “Should MDA determine later that it ought to be individually licensed, it will be notified.”

That is how much power MDA is given to lord over what are independent platforms.

In 2011, TOC was gazetted by the Prime Minister’s Office as a “political association” and came under the Political Donations Act. It would be a double-jeopardy, so to speak, if TOC was also required to be licensed under this new licensing framework.

TOC will, again, have the distinction of being one of the rare websites in the world to be given such a “recognition” by a government.

MDA’s unexplained determination that TOC and presumably other popular websites such as Temasek Review Emeritus and The Real Singapore do not come under the new rules is perplexing, given that these sites apparently meet the requirements in the new legislations.

Is the MDA being arbitrary in its enforcement? Or is it leaving any actions it is contemplating to take to a later, more appropriate, time, perhaps closer to the next general election?

And this is another valid concern – that the new rules are politically-motivated, or at least can be abused politically to the ruling party’s advantage.

As blogger and the former Chief Editor of TOC, Ravi Philemon, explained on his blog:

“In this ‘new normal’, it may not take very much for members from the public to lodge a complaint about TOC or TRE nearer the next General Election, and if MDA assesses that such websites have to move to this new licensing framework at that time by placing a $50,000 performance bond, it may place a very heavy burden on these socio-political websites, and they may choose to cease operating at such a crucial time of national self-determination. The online world is the most open ‘public square’ Singaporeans have for public discourse, and this new licensing framework for online news sites is a great impediment to this.

“This new regulation of MDA’s is a tool which can be misused for political reasons, and there are no safeguards against MDA acting arbitrarily to move socio-political websites to this new framework.”

Imagine MDA – by its own determination – issues orders for various websites to apply for licensing and to post the $50,000 “performance bond”, a few weeks before a general election. In the 2006 General Election, the Government banned all podcasts, and in the 2011 elections, it introduced the Cooling-Off Day where all websites, except for “registered news sites”, were banned from reporting or publishing commentaries of the elections.

There is a high possibility that the Government will enforce these new regulations more widely among the blogs and websites as the next elections draw nearer.

After the elections of May 2011, the prime minister admitted that his Government had not “interpreted [ground feedback] correctly”. That is, the Government had lost touch with the ground – and this was confirmed by the decline in votes for Mr Lee’s party, the People’s Action Party (PAP).

These new regulations are another sign that the Government continues to be oblivious to the changing aspirations of Singaporeans – for a free environment, which includes a free mainstream media, for expression.

At the same time, it is not surprising that the Government is seeking to tighten its control over Singaporeans’ behaviour. In 2 more years – when there is a very high likelihood of the next elections being called – Singapore will be celebrating its 50th year of independence from colonial rule.

The PAP Government would want to be able to celebrate this historical and important milestone by winning the elections convincingly. And you can only win elections by winning public opinion, and public opinion is increasingly being shaped by social and the online media.

Hence, the need to control it.

But, as my friend and fellow editor at Publichouse.sg, Biddy Low, posted on her Facebook wall, the Government seems to be more interested in reining in what irks it than to seriously look at the important things which face our society and country. And in its ignorant and desperate bid to control public opinion through ill-thought out legislations, it once again shows that it continues to be out of touch with the common man and woman.

And there is perhaps no greater danger to a country than a government which is woefully and hopelessly out of touch, and being so installs curbs which not only stalls our society’s progress but in fact reverses it.

Mr Yaacob claims that the new rules are to bring “consistency” between the online media and the mainstream media. Unfortunately, it seems that the Government wants to drag down the independent online media to the atrociously low standards of Singapore’s mainstream media instead – a fact proved by the miserable rankings our press freedom has consistently achieved in ratings by international agencies, and the low regard Singaporeans have for the likes of the government-controlled broadsheet, the Straits Times.

Biddy says it best, but sadly her eloquent and accurate message will be lost on those who continue to hide themselves in their bureaucratic Ivory Tower:

“You know what pisses me off most about the new MDA ruling? Not the ruling itself, which I think is going to be as effective as Donald Trump’s hairpiece. But how the online platform has repeatedly been described by our ministers as malignant and lacking in reason and credibility.

“Go ahead and focus on the worst side of this democratic platform online. It does not reflect badly on the resilient, smart and eloquent men and women who have contributed. What it does reflect, is how you would listen to the guy spouting xenophobic rants, but not the activist calling for the abolishment of the death sentence. How you would react to the person who makes malicious personal attacks, but not the ones asking for better workers’ rights, local and foreign alike. How you would ignore the issue of the relevance of some laws, brought up to you in your face, but spend so much time in the media’s watchful eye complaining about the unruly crowd.

“All it convinces me of is that ‘engagement’ to the incumbent is just a dog and pony show when right from the start, no compromise was to be given and we remain where we started.

“Which is actually good, ‘cause nothing is better to behold than the truth.”

These are the MDA people – the “senior management” – who want to decide what you can write, read, see or hear:

It is scary, isn’t it?

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