Withdraw Repressive Licensing Regime of Online News Sites

Bangkok/Kuala Lumpur/Singapore – The Asian Forum for Human Rights and Development (FORUM-ASIA), Southeast Asian Press Alliance (SEAPA), Southeast Asian Centre for e-Media (SEACeM) and Think Centre register our serious concern at the introduction of a licensing regime to regulate online news sites by the Media Development Authority (MDA), an agency under the Ministry of Communications and Information (MCI) that regulates all types of media in Singapore. We contend that the measures have the potential to curtail the rights to the freedom of expression and information online. It is highly regrettable that the authorities have chosen to tighten its grip on online space in a country where traditional media outlets have been subjected to strict controls like the Newspaper and Printing Presses Act (NPPA) and consistently perform poorly in press freedom rankings.[1]

We question the necessity or merits of the licensing framework at this juncture, especially since the MDA has stated that there are no expected changes to the content standards governing websites. We also deplore the seeming haste and secrecy at which the regulations came into force in the absence of any public consultations or debate in Parliament.[2] The licensing framework subjects news websites — that meet the criteria of (i) publishing one article that reports on Singapore news every week and (ii) 50000 unique visitors every month — to require individual licenses, including posting (and forfeiture) of monetary bonds and an annual review of licenses. Under the new regime, operators of news sites which defy the authorities’ order to apply for a licence could face a fine of up to SGD200,000 or a maximum jail term of three years or both.

While the MDA has clarified that personal blogs are currently exempted from the licensing conditions, it does not safeguard against the thinly-veiled threat that “if they take on the nature of news sites, we will take a closer look and evaluate them accordingly”. The requirement of a SGD50,000 performance bond could still mean that independent websites such as citizen and community-run platforms are compelled to cease operations due to the inability to raise funds.

Furthermore, the imposition of a 24-hour takedown rule for “objectionable” content on websites, which also applies even to comments made by readers, gives the MDA censorship powers over licensed websites. In addition, we are further alarmed that liability for sanctions extend to similar content carried in mirrors or other websites.  Worryingly, there is a conspicuous absence of any mention of oversight or recourse mechanisms against any abuse of the law. Such unfettered discretionary powers grant the authorities broad latitude to suppress free speech online on the vague grounds of public interest, morality, order and security, among others.

The measures introduced undoubtedly create a chilling effect and have the potential to shrink the democratizing potential of popular online platforms Singapore. Such attempts are not unprecedented in Singapore. In 2011, the government gazettedsocio-political commentary website The Online Citizen as a “political association”. This year, bloggers and website owners have variously been threatened with defamation suits, served with take-down notices and made to issue public apologies. The Minister of Communication has also stated that the Broadcasting Act would be amended next year to include overseas news websites reporting on Singapore as well.

We would like to assert that the media in general should be kept free from state control, and that self-regulation by the media should be the starting point of any official policy, in order to fully realize the right to freedom of expression and opinion. We remind the Singapore government that keeping the internet free is crucial to promoting and protecting the right to the freedom of expression and opinion, which, under international human rights law, includes the freedom to hold opinions without interference and to seek, receive and impart information and ideas through any media and regardless of frontiers.

In this regard, we call on the Singapore government to withdraw the draconian licensing framework for online news sites. We stress that any mechanism to address alleged objectionable online content must be dealt with on a case-case-to case basis, through a fair and transparent process with judicial oversight instead of extending the discretionary powers of executive or quasi-government bodies.

 


[1] Singapore is ranked 153 (Not Free) in Freedom House’s Freedom of the Press 2013 and 149th out of 179 countries in the 2013 Reporters Without Borders press freedom  index.

[2] The MDA made the announcement on 28 May 2013 and the regulation came into force on 1 June 2013.