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Reading “the right thing” under wrong circumstances

By Cheryl Marie Tay

And so, as many of us had probably already expected, the MDA’s plan to “regulate” online news sites has come to pass. Today is the day, and it appears there’s not much we can do about it.

For all the talk of a “light touch”, as well as all the fuss over the much-hyped National Conversation, the nasty surprise sure hit many journalists like a ton of bricks. But why is there so much apprehension and disapproval from not just journalists and editors but also the rest of the general public?

Between the Lines

Let’s look at what the new licensing rule entails. Minister for Communications and Information, Yaacob Ibrahim, said: “Given the evolving landscape, it’s important to give some form of parity between online news sites and traditional mainstream media newspapers and TV broadcasters.”

This all sounds well and good — until one assesses exactly what “traditional mainstream media newspapers and TV broadcasters” are in Singapore. We have only one such paper (not counting The New Paper, of course), The Straits Times. We have only one such broadcaster, Channel NewsAsia. There are no other publications or TV stations in the country to compete or compare with, or to level the playing field. Add to that the simple fact that websites are different from — and therefore run differently from — traditional media and one can easily see the fallacy in this line of logic.

At the same time, if online news sites were to be regulated the same way traditional media is regulated, where would that leave alternative news? Bearing in mind that Singapore ranks 149th out of 179 countries worldwide on Reporters Without Borders’ Press Freedom Index, which, as reported by the BBC, is “below even the likes of Zimbabwe and Afghanistan”, would this not defeat the very purpose of alternative news?

Rich vs. Poor

Another contentious aspect of the new licensing rule is the S$50,000 performance bond online news sites are required to pay. The MDA has stated: “The performance bond of S$50,000 is pegged to that put up by niche broadcasters today, and need not necessarily entail cash upfront. Licensees can consider options such as banker’s guarantee or insurance. MDA will be happy to engage in further discussions with any licensee who may have concerns about meeting the licence obligations.”

The MDA has, unfortunately, missed the point. The mode of payment is not the main concern. Unlike The Straits Times, most online news sites do not charge their readers registration or subscription fees. Even if such a site features paid advertisements, its revenue would be nowhere near that of SPH’s, as print advertisements are infinitely more costly and therefore more lucrative than online advertisements. Unless it belongs to a highly successful parent company that has other forms of revenue, an online news site is unlikely to be able to afford this performance bond, be it in cash, banker’s guarantee, or insurance.

And what of the 24-hour deadline for such sites to remove content the MDA deems inappropriate, lest they lose their performance bond? Consider the possibilities that could lead one to unintentionally flout the rules: what if a website’s server has crashed or is under maintenance for 24 hours or more? What if the owner and sole contributor of a news blog is out of the country for the week or recuperating in the hospital after major surgery? Will provisions be made then, or will they lose their hard-earned S$50,000 due to a technicality?

Sneak Attack

Remember the headline-making National Conversation? Apparently, the people’s cries had been heard. We wanted to be included in decisions that would affect the future of our country and our government was ready to hear us out. The stage was set, the ministers prepped and the audience in place. Questions were asked and answered on national TV. We were to believe that, despite evidence to the contrary, the government was now willing to consult the citizens and the opposition MPs in decisions regarding Singapore & her people.

Fast forward to June 2013 and, almost out of nowhere, our Internet is suddenly being regulated without our consent or prior knowledge. The only warning we had came in the form of a few vague, non-committal statements here and there about the possibility of rules being imposed, as well as a brief paragraph on the MDA’s official website about how it “adopts a balanced and light-touch approach” to Internet regulation.

In most developed countries, a bill has to be introduced in Parliament before any new law is passed. This is the case in Australia, the UK and the US, to name but a few examples. In fact, on the Singapore Parliament website itself, it is stated: “Before any law is passed, it is first introduced in Parliament as a draft called a ‘Bill’. All Bills must go through three readings in Parliament and receive the President’s assent to become an Act of Parliament.”

Correct me if I’m wrong but does anyone remember any such action being taken before this new licensing rule was imposed? Were any surveys conducted to find out if the people of Singapore felt such a rule was necessary or beneficial? Were the moderators or owners of online news sites consulted about the performance bond before a five-figure sum was unceremoniously slapped on them?

One really wonders just how credible the government is, when, clearly lacking a well-rounded, balanced approach, it simply enacts new laws overnight.

Blinkers, Crop & Spurs

What is most troubling, however, is where the justification for the new licensing rule stems from. Mr. Ibrahim has made several statements to the press regarding the matter, all of which are at least mildly insulting to Singaporeans’ intelligence.

When interviewed by the BBC, he said, “As long as they (the public) go onto online news sites to read the news, I think it is important for us to make sure that they read ‘the right things’.”

First of all, a little elaboration on what Mr. Ibrahim perceives as “the right things” would be helpful. He has said there is no reason online news sites should not be subject to the same “regulatory framework” that affects the mainstream media. So can “the right things” be found in The Straits Times?

Secondly, this implies that readers of online news are incapable of discerning right from wrong and need to be told exactly what to read. It seems the role of website moderators to ensure that inflammatory contents and comments are removed, as well as the freedom to choose what one reads, is lost on the minister. It also diminishes us to mere puppets who need to be controlled, even when it comes to what we read.

Despite attempts to assure us that the new rule is not a “clamping down”, such a restriction can hardly be seen as anything else. After all, even readers are not spared. The MDA has stated that “…the content guidelines apply to all content on the news sites, including readers’ comments.”

What Now?

With this new licensing rule, content which is offensive to any race or religion, or which is seen as “seditious”, will be removed, and rightly so. But what about objectively written and reported content which happens to paint the government in a less than positive light? The appeal of alternative news is the fresh perspectives it often offers, apart from what is found in the mainstream media. But if such perspectives call into question the government, will the site moderator be made to remove the content within 24 hours, or will the government be mature enough to accept that differing views will always exist and that healthy debate is not a threat to society?

The swift enforcement of the rule casts much doubt over the latter scenario. As it is, NCMP Lina Chiam has filed a motion to debate the MDA licensing regime in Parliament, and major websites in Singapore will protest the new regime.

And yet, because this new rule affects not only moderators and contributors of online news sites but also their readers, all Singaporeans should fight to protect their rights and voice their opposition of the rule. It is most certainly not in the interest of the people to have what they read censored or controlled, especially when the primary purpose of online news sites is to provide alternatives to the mainstream media. Despite claims that the “framework is not an attempt to influence the editorial slant of news sites”, the only purpose such a rule would serve is exactly that.

We have no moral obligation to “read the right things”. We do, however, have a moral obligation to do the right thing for ourselves and our country.