Singapore's Internet community is in backlash since the government announced on May 28 a new licensing scheme for "news websites"--a term it did not define--arguing that digital news platforms ought to be regulated on par with offline media. The government said the scheme would take effect June 1.
The Internet community is suspicious about the true intent behind the new rules. A group of bloggers has called for an online blackout Thursday, and are organizing a protest demonstration for Saturday.
In the announcement, 10 sites were initially singled out for licensing, with seven belonging to pro-government Singapore Press Holdings, and two to government-owned Mediacorp. The only independent site asked to submit to licensing was Yahoo Singapore. However, the rules as written allow the government to require other sites, including foreign ones, to register if they meet these criteria: (1) report an average of at least one article per week on Singapore's news and current affairs over a period of two months, and (2) are visited by at least 50,000 unique IP addresses from Singapore each month over a period of two months.
Many Internet users consider the threshold very low, and are thus alarmed that the rules can easily be extended to their individual and joint blogs.
Under the scheme, licensed sites must take down content within 24 hours of an order by the Media Development Authority (MDA), an arm of the Ministry of Communications and Information. As a condition of the license, site owners must put up a US$39,500 bond.
The new rules follow the wide-ranging Broadcasting Act which makes it an offense to disobey the government's orders as to content, with fines of up to US$16,000, and imprisonment of up to two years' jail.
In the face of the outcry, the MDA started backpedalling within days of the announcement. "An individual publishing views on current affairs and trends on his/her personal website or blog does not amount to news reporting," said a post by the MDA on its Facebook page.
This only added to the controversy when it was pointed out how absurd it was for policy to be made on the fly by means of Facebook statements. What legal standing do such statements have? What assurance that such statements are not rescinded by subsequent postings on social media?
Minister of Communications and Information Yaacob Ibrahim stressed that the new license does not signify any change in content standards. Writing on his Facebook page on May 31, he said, "Under the current class licensing regime, content that breaches our content standards--whether it offends good taste or incites racial or religious hatred--already needs to be taken down. There will be no change in these standards."
This raises more questions than it answers, for it draws attention to the fact that the government already has a license scheme, under which all websites (though "all" has never been defined) are considered automatically licensed and subject to MDA's orders. Why then is there a need to create another license? The key difference seems to be the bond, but exactly why that should now be necessary is unclear.
Nor are there convincing examples from recent years of online content that was unequivocally damaging to the public interest. There have been the occasional bouts of offensive speech against religious or foreign national groups--there is a rising anti-immigration lobby--but these have been countered by other citizens online, and in a few cases, the government used ordinary laws to prosecute offenders.
These laws and their uses are themselves controversial. The Sedition Act has been used to prosecute racist and religiously inflammatory speech, and contempt of court laws have been used to curb comments criticizing Singapore's judicial system.
The writer was himself compelled to take down postings that asked pointed questions of our court processes in 2012. The law minister and prime minister also demanded that he take down postings referring to them or face defamation proceedings. Defamation law in Singapore is well known for bankrupting opposition politicians.
More recently, cartoonist Leslie Chew was arrested by the police for an allegedly racist cartoon strip and another one that was critical of the judiciary.
The Singapore government has for 50 years used the spectre of racial and religious conflict to justify curbs on civil rights and political dissent. They are doing it again with this announcement.
When asked for examples of content that would be banned by the new license rules, the government mentioned its request to Google to block a YouTube video, "The Innocence of Muslims," from Singapore IP addresses. This video disparaged the Prophet Muhammad and led to widespread demonstrations in several Muslim countries.
Google voluntarily agreed to do so, which suggests that reasonable requests would be acceded to. Why then the need for the new licensing scheme--which the government said could be applied to foreign-based websites as well? Presumably, in the event that a foreign hosted service like Google refused to take down content, the government imagines it could require them to take up a Singapore license and put up a bond. Many Singaporeans consider this laughable.
Despite citing this example, which was clearly one about content, Yaacob said in the aforementioned Facebook posting that the new rules are not about content. He then shot himself in the foot by telling BBC in a video interview that the aim of the new rules is "to protect the interest of the ordinary Singaporean" and "to make sure they read the 'right' things." He used finger quotes for the word 'right.' What is that, if not about controlling content?
Within days, challenged on blogs and social media, the purpose and scope of the new rules have drowned in confusion. This inability to stand up to scrutiny is very telling. It indicates that the new rules have not been rigorously conceptualized, which is not entirely surprising. Given the authoritarian nature of the Singapore government, the new scheme likely grew out of its compulsive need to amass tools of control to cope with various imagined scenarios of dissent. Bureaucrats tasked to draw up the details were left trying to find excuses for the new scheme to cloak its true purpose.
Another theory doing the rounds is that the new license regime is targeted at Yahoo, other foreign media organizations, and any future local business wanting to set up an online newspaper. The fear is that they will take market share from the pro-government media and their news sites. This new scheme is meant to induce the same degree of self-censorship and pro-government bias in Yahoo and any new venture, and thus help preserve the government's hold on power.
Editor's note: CPJ asked Alan Soon, Yahoo's country manager for Singapore and Southeast Asia managing editor, for comment on the new licensing plan. He pointed us to this post.