Singapore’s new licensing scheme for news websites has ignited a flurry of criticism from netizens, press freedom advocates, and human rights groups, who have quickly denounced it as a draconian censorship measure.
On May 28, the Media Development Authority (MDA) announced that news websites reporting on Singapore that receive at least 50,000 views from unique IP addresses per month must secure a license. Further, according to a media statement, they must “put up a ‘performance bond’ of $50,000 and ‘comply within 24 hours to MDA’s directions to remove content that is found to be in breach of content standards’.”
So far, the government has identified ten websites, including Yahoo! Singapore, which are covered by the ruling. Besides Yahoo, all websites listed by the MDA are partly government owned.
Although the license is purportedly limited to mainstream news websites, some netizens who have initiated a petition against it worry that the vague wording in the new ruling “leaves the door open for blogs or any other site to be forced to license in the future without any change in the law.”
Singapore’s leading sociopolitical bloggers and commentators have also warned about the possible impact of the regulation “on fellow Singaporeans’ ability to receive diverse news information.”
An article in The Online Citizen added: “The new licensing regime has the very real potential to reduce the channels available to Singaporeans to receive news and analysis of the sociopolitical situation in Singapore and it is in the interest of all Singaporeans to guard against the erosion and availability of news channels that Singaporeans should rightfully have access to.”
For Siew Kum Hong, who once served as counsel for Yahoo in Singapore, the new regulation is a mistake since it “reinforces the perception that Singapore is a repressive place — which is precisely the wrong message to be sending to a globalised and networked world, when you are trying to build an innovative and creative economy where freedom of thought is so essential.”
Responding to the uproar online, the MDA assured the public that the license scheme is actually fair and will not undermine internet freedom. It reiterated that blogs are exempted from the regulation: “An individual publishing views on current affairs and trends on his/her personal website or blog does not amount to news reporting.”
In addition, it clarified that the content take-down clause revolves around “core content concerns that would threaten the social fabric and national interests of our country.” The MDA added, “Examples include content that incites racial or religious hatred; misleads and causes mass panic; or advocates or promotes violence.”
Despite the MDA’s assurances, netizens remain unconvinced. A movement called “Free My Internet” has been organized specifically to push for the withdrawal of the license scheme, which has already been successfully annexed by the MDA as a subsidiary legislation. Critics have also called for a public gathering at Hong Lim Park this Saturday to pressure the MDA and parliament to scrap the measure.
For unifying Singapore’s often divided netizens and inspiring a rare democratic protest, perhaps the MDA should be commended for issuing a controversial ruling.