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.
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.
Existing laws and regulations can also be pulled in to restrict the activities of independent news sites. In 2011, TOC was gazetted by the Prime Minister’s Office as a political association. This was shortly after the community-run blog organized a forum in late-2010 bringing together politicians from alternative parties to discuss the upcoming general election. The PAP had been invited, but did not attend.
Although the gazetting has not affected the content posted on TOC, the website is now required to provide an accounting of all its revenue, and can only accept up to S$5000 of anonymous donations a year. Any donation after that S$5000 needs to be declared, and no foreign funding can be accepted.
“I see two problems,” says Xu when asked about how the gazetting has restricted TOC’s activities. “One is that students, academics, people with close connection with government agencies or businesses that need to work with them might think twice of dealing with us, either to contribute articles or for donations or advertising. The second issue would be that we can't ask for foreign aid like how Malaysiakini sought assistance from international foundations to start up our resources to kickstart our operations.”
The inability to accept funding from foreigners is a challenge that other websites might also have to face. The government caused a small stir in late July when they required news website The Independent to register under the Broadcasting (Class Licence) Notification, which would require them “to undertake not to receive foreign funding for its provision, management and/or operation.”
The Independent, a professionally run online journalism outfit, had been over a week away from its actual launch date.
“We hope to run a sustainable operation where we can produce high quality well researched pieces and eventually to run a platform that can offer wider career options for journalists in Singapore,” says its managing editor Kumaran Pillai, adding that the government’s requirement had not impeded their activities in any way.
That said, tight regulations against foreign funding throws up a major hurdle for grounds-up projects that often face a lack of resources. With organizations such as the Open Society Foundation and the Knight Foundation serving as significant sources of funding for journalism and media efforts all over the world, the inability of Singaporean community-run websites to apply for grants severely limits the amount of work they can do. With limited funding restricting their ability to pay contributors for their time and effort, websites hoping to consistently produce their own content and coverage become difficult to sustain.
To Xu, restricting the ways in which TOC can be funded seems unreasonable: “What makes us any different from companies like Yahoo! Singapore, which is an overseas publication funded by foreign investors, and corporations such as Singapore Press Holdings that have shareholders who are foreigners? I think it is perfectly fine if they require us to submit accounts of foundations and grants that TOC receives but to totally deny us from receiving funding is quite overdoing it.”
Laws, regulations and licensing schemes might contribute towards a climate of fear and a culture of self-censorship in Singapore, but at the end of the day the greatest difficulty might not be state repression. The logistics and practicalities of everyday maintenance could prove to be the biggest challenge for citizen journalism portals.
The sheer amount of work that goes into sustaining TOC prompted Xu to quit his job as a service engineer at a fire protection company to devote more time to the website. “I felt the site wasn't going anywhere with just volunteering and we were facing an issue of dwindling contributors,” he explained.
It’s a problem faced by alternative news sites all over the world, even in countries where state control over the media is not as apparent. There is no perfect method of achieving sustainability, but as Singaporeans begin to turn more and more to the internet for their news and information, it appears as if Singapore’s blogosphere is here to stay.
Kirsten Han is a writer, videographer and photographer. Originally from Singapore, she has worked on documentary projects around Asia and written for publications including Waging Nonviolence, Asian Correspondent and The Huffington Post.