Singapore adopts a so-called light touch approach to regulating online activity, which means only “minimum standards are set for the responsible use of the Internet.” But for media freedom advocates, this framework is no different from the policies of other countries that practice outright Internet censorship. The case of socio-political website Breakfast Network, which has recently gone offline, illustrates how media control is exercised in Singapore.
The Breakfast Network, founded by former journalist Bertha Henson, has decided to cease its website operations after it rejected the “onerous” registration requirements of the government. It still has an online presence through its Facebook and Twitter accounts, but it was directed by the Media Development Authority (MDA) to stop publishing after it failed to register and acquire a license.
Under the Broadcasting (Class License) Act, a corporate entity providing political commentary must register with the MDA to ensure that it does not receive foreign funding. Aside from revealing its funding source, a political website must submit the personal details of its editors and staff.
The Breakfast Network, which was ordered to submit its registration documents on December 10, complained that the government’s technical requirements and registration forms contained too many vague provisions. It sought clarification from the MDA and applied for a one month extension of the registration deadline. The MDA agreed to extend the registration procedure for only a week and insisted that the registration forms are “straightforward.”
In the end, the Breakfast Network decided not to register.
“In our opinion, the proceedings have been farcical. It seems that MDA had expected Breakfast Network Pte Ltd to register and was caught off-balance when the company decided not to. Hence, the curiously vague nature of its replies,” the group said in a statement.
For its part, the MDA said the “registration requirement is simply to ensure that Breakfast Network will not receive foreign funding.”
“MDA would like to reiterate that the content is not the issue. Rather, it is the mode of operation, i.e. via a corporate entity which means there is greater possibility for foreign influence,” the MDA added.
The agency also reminded the website editorial board not to publish stories via Facebook and Twitter.
“Should Breakfast Network Pte Ltd remain active as a company, it must not operate any iteration of www.breakfastnetwork.sg on other Internet platforms as doing so would contravene MDA’s registration requirements. These other Internet platforms include Breakfast Network’s Facebook page and Twitter Feed.”
Netizens and human rights groups quickly denounced the “overly-intrusive requirements” imposed by the government and warned against excessive media regulation. Cherian George described the closure of the Breakfast Network as “death by red tape.” Braema Mathi of the human rights group Maruah is worried that the “registration requirement has chilled and reduced the space for free expression in Singapore.” Ng E-Jay accused the government of being “a highly sophisticated oppressor” by “forcing the removal via legislation” of a website that is known for advocating “constructive and critical dialogue” in the country.
Blogger Andy Xian Wong questioned the provision prohibiting foreigners from funding political websites: “Perhaps it is not so much a fear of foreign voices exactly, as it is a fear of critical voices, which coming from overseas are much harder for the government to manage and contain.”
Responding to criticisms, the MDA clarified that there is no new Internet regulation since it merely implemented an old policy that seeks to prevent foreign interests from manipulating the local media. It also defended the registration procedure as a necessary mechanism to protect the public welfare.
“Registration does not mean the promotion of political or religious causes is not allowed. It merely serves to emphasize the need for the content providers to be responsible in what they say. This is important, given the multi-racial, multi-religious nature of our society.”
On the other hand, the closure of the Breakfast Network website will certainly embolden press freedom advocacy groups to continue their campaign to press for an easing of media restrictions, which should include revising the government’s “light touch” Internet regulation framework.