At the beginning of each work day, Terry Xu schedules new articles to be published on his socio-political website The Online Citizen (TOC), sharing fresh material on various social media platforms. He also checks the group’s constantly overflowing email inbox, dealing with requests to publicize events or investigate issues in Singapore. There’s no shortage of work to be done, and Xu can often be found online checking for news updates until late in the night.
Laws and regulations such as the Newspaper and Printing Presses Act and the Broadcasting Act have ensured the PAP government has a dominant voice in Singapore’s mainstream media. The internet, though, is an entirely different ballgame.
With high internet and smartphone penetration levels, Singaporeans share, converse, debate and quarrel with one another online every day. It is incredibly difficult to predict whether something will or will not go viral, but once it happens there’s no stopping it.Enjoying this article? Click here to subscribe for full access. Just $5 a month.
Although the government has often promised to maintain a “light touch” approach to regulating the internet, measures have still been introduced to keep the online community, well, in line. A new licensing regime was introduced in June 2013, making it necessary for popular news websites—those with more than an average of 50,000 viewers per month—to obtain a license from the government.
The announcement—there was no parliamentary debate before the regime was introduced—was not well-received by the blogosphere. Bloggers quickly mobilized to form #FreeMyInternet, a movement aimed at drawing attention to the dangers of giving the government the power to require websites to register. (Disclosure: This writer is part of the #FreeMyInternet movement.)
Among the issues raised by #FreeMyInternet was the vague wording of the legislation, making it difficult to distinguish news websites from blogs and community-run portals.
Nonetheless, the government insisted that the licensing requirements would not stifle freedom of expression for Singaporean bloggers, saying that it had been introduced simply to bring regulation on news websites in line with those in place for print and broadcast media.
In an interview with the BBC, Minister for Communications and Information Yaacob Ibrahim 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 in so far as what has transpired yesterday, if there’s an event it is reported accurately, this was said by so-and-so, and what have you, basically.”
So far the licensing regime has not been used on any website or blog apart from the ten first identified (nine of which were online properties of mainstream media organizations, the tenth being Yahoo! Singapore). Although skeptical, bloggers hope it will stay that way.
But the MDA’s licensing regime is not the only way the state can exert control and influence over the Internet. The government is also known to use threats of defamation or contempt of court suits to deal with bloggers.
Letters have been sent to blogs threatening legal action unless certain articles are retracted and taken down. For example, community blog Temasek Review Emeritus was asked to retract an article alleging cronyism. Blogger Alex Au also received a letter demanding that he take down a post that implied the existence of corruption in relation to PAP town councils and the company Action Information Management. Faced with the potential of an expensive lawsuit, bloggers often comply with take-down requests.
Earlier this year filmmaker Lynn Lee was given a warning of contempt of court by the Attorney-General’s Chambers for publishing interviews with former bus drivers who had been involved in a strike, where allegations of police brutality were made.