Light touch on the net becomes heavier

In 2013, the Singapore government imposed restrictions on online expression, in a move which seems to tighten the two-decade old ‘light touch’ approach to internet expression.

Until then, the internet had been a freer space compared to the highly regulated mainstream media, but the latest move by the government has breathed a chill to its relative freedom.

New lever of control

On top of the existing class licensing scheme, a website which has 50,000 unique visitors a month from within Singapore and publishes one news article on the city state weekly is now required to obtained an individual license, put up a 50,000 SGD (approximately 40,000 USD) good performance bond and comply with a 24-hours take-down notice on specific content.

Announcing the regulation in May, the Media Development Authority (MDA) listed ten websites which meet the new requirements. Nine of these websites are state-owned but the list included Yahoo News Singapore.

The new regulation drew criticism from abroad and locally. Two thousand people turned out to join a protest against the new ruling in June, and more than 100 websites join an online action replacing their home page with the words “Free My Internet” on black screen.

Internationally, major tech companies in the Asia Internet Coalition, including Facebook, Google, and Yahoo described the new regulation as “an additional layer of regulation, which has also introduced significant business uncertainty for the industry.”

Human Rights Watch urged the withdrawal of the ruling, saying that it would have chilling effect on the online community.

The wide criterion MDA set for a website to fall under the licensing rule is seen as potentially ready to cover opposition party websites in the long run. While the regulation applies only to websites based in Singapore, there are plans to include foreign websites so long as those report Singapore affairs in the future.

Under the same breath to regulate the online space, the government required The Independent, a new local initiative, to obtain a class license.

Acceding to the demand, The Independent undertook not to receive foreign funding for its management and operations, comply with content guidelines and other conditions in the framework.

It was started in July by veteran journalists PN Balji and Kumaran Pillai with lawyer Alfred Dodwell and aimed to provide in depth analysis on current issues.

In contrast, the government’s registration procedures which included in-depth disclosures and declarations be provided in less than a month, besides prohibiting foreign funding has caused a new alternative news website, Breakfast Network to shut down. Its owner, former journalist Bertha Henson decided not to register it as a company after considering how compliance with rules would take away resources from running the small start-up.

Instead of a full-fledged website, Breakfast Network keeps itself to a Facebook page running news comments.

Off limits institutions

Criticism of the judiciary continues to draw legal threats from the establishment using a rule about “scandalising the court”, while criticising the PM runs the risk of a defamation suit.

In January, blogger Alex Au’s article questioning the town council’s transaction with a company of the ruling party was deemed to have defamed the Prime Minister in some of its statements and readers’ comments. Alex removed the article and issued an apology as demanded by the PM’s lawyer.

In November, the Attorney General’s Chamber initiated proceedings against Alex for two of his blog postings for scandalising the judiciary. At the time of this report the court is still vetting the AGC’s application against the blogger.

Lester Chew, a cartoonist who publishes his work on Facebook, was arrested in April under the Sedition Act.

The AGC said that one of them scandalises the judiciary and demanded its removal and an apology, while the second one was alleged to have disturbed racial sensitivity. The AGC decided not to take action under the Sedition Act but proceeded with the scandalising the judiciary charge.

Lester denied all charges and refused to apologise, maintaining that his cartoons are entirely fictional.

Invoking the sub-judice rule, the AGC warned the public not to discuss the pending court challenge to Section 377A of the Penal Code criminalising homosexual intercourse, and filmmaker Lynn Lee who interviewed the Chinese nationals involved in the bus strike in late 2012.

Lynn published in her blog the video interview of He Junling and Liu Xiangying, who were out on bail for their convictions of organizing the strike. Both alleged in the video that they were assaulted by the police, which the government denied after conducting investigation.

Reinforcing self-censorship?

In February Nanyang Technological University’s rejection of tenure for Associate Professor Cherian George, raised an outcry in the academia linking the decision to his political views.

This was the second time tenure was denied to Cherian, who had won the University’s award for excellence in teaching and is a leading commentator on Singapore’s state of media freedom and politics.

NTU students, former deans and faculty members petitioned the University to specify the reasons for the rejection but NTU has declined, maintaining that the decision was based on peer-assessment.

That Cherian was denied tenure despite an exemplary track record, and the lack of transparency in NTU’s decision has led to protest by some faculty members. In a letter of support to Cherian, they spoke of uncertainty cast over their professional integrity and reputation. One NTU Professor from a different faculty said that the rejection is simply due to interference from outside the University.

After losing the appeal in May, Cherian would have to leave the University in a year’s time.

Outlook

Singapore has entered a period of greater control of online expression concerned. The government has stepped in to regulate websites with known operators and which potentially challenge its rein on information and stands on various issues.

The government’s slated review of the Broadcasting Act in mid- 2014, one of the laws which governs the internet and authorizes the MDA, deserves cautious attention. The government has committed to public consultation and also invited the Asia Internet Coalition to give feedback, but little is yet known of the objectives of the review beyond its pronouncement of keeping up with the evolving communications landscape.

Although the Minister of Information, Yaacob Ibrahim gave reassurance that the ‘light touch’ approach to internet will continue, and that its latest move in June is not targetted at content censorship, the online community has thought otherwise.

An unwanted scenario could be that the chilling effect would in the long run compel self-censorship, possibly using non-internet related laws, or additional constraints be introduced to make it difficult to manage and maintain a website, similar to the gazetting requirements for organizations under the Political Donations Act.

Without the government’s willingness to accept the practice of diversity of views and opinion, the fear of online censorship cannot be ruled out.