Prominent Singapore activists and bloggers behind some popular independent websites on Thursday called on the government to withdraw a new licensing scheme to regulate major online news sites.
Announced by the Media Development Authority (MDA) on Tuesday, the scheme will require 10 online news sites that report regularly on Singapore and have significant reach to obtain individual licences from 1 June.
Under such a licence, the sites will have to put up a performance bond of S$50,000 and comply within 24 hours with any order by the media watchdog to take down objectionable content.
In a statement issued Thursday, more than 20 individuals, most of whom write for socio-political sites such as The Online Citizen (TOC), TR Emeritus (TRE) and publichouse.sg, expressed their concerns about the impact of the newly-introduced requirement on Singaporeans’ ability to receive “diverse news information”.
The sites are not among the 10 identified by the MDA, but there are fears they could also come under tighter regulation. Currently, online news sites automatically have a class licence rather than an individual licence.
Yaacob Ibrahim, Minister for Communications and Information, which oversees the MDA, was quoted by local media as saying that the government was eyeing the inclusion of overseas-based sites in the new licensing regime and the passage of the necessary laws to effect that.
In their statement, the activists and bloggers – including Howard Lee, Alex Au and Lynn Lee – said they believe that the introduction of the licensing regime had not gone through the proper and necessary consultation, and had been introduced without clear guidance.
“In a typical public consultation exercise, a government agency will publish a draft regulation with detailed explanation and issue a press release to invite members of the public to send in feedback for consideration. We observe this is not the case for the licensing regime,” they said.
They also refuted MDA’s claim that the licensing regime would equalise the playing field between online news sites and traditional media given the size of the performance bond.
“While the S$50,000 performance bond is a drop in the ocean for a mainstream news outlet with an online presence, it would potentially be beyond the means of volunteer run and personal blogging platforms like ours,” they said.
Plans for a protest
Responding to queries from Yahoo! Singapore, TOC deputy chief director Howard Lee said the online websites are planning to organise an actual protest, which will take place in the next week or so. More on that will be announced soon, he said.
Earlier, an MDA spokesperson responded to queries from Yahoo! Singapore about objections raised by online users on the licensing scheme and concerns of the scheme restricting press freedom.
The spokesperson said that the new licensing framework is not intended to clamp down on Internet freedom, but to provide greater clarity on prevailing content standards in the Internet Code of Practice.
“The content guidelines within the new Licence clarifies what is considered ‘content against public interest, public morality, public order, public security, national harmony’ in the Internet Code of Practice, which all existing news sites are already expected to comply with,” the spokesperson said.
MDA said the content guidelines shall apply to all content on the news sites, “including readers' comments”.
The spokesperson also said that it is not MDA’s policy intent to place onerous obligations on the licensees, and that the performance bond of S$50,000 is pegged to that required of niche broadcasters. Should any licensee experience difficulties in meeting their licensing requirements, MDA is open to discussing their concerns, she said.
MDA said online news sites will be individually licensed if they report an average of at least one article per week on Singapore’s news and current affairs over a period of two months, and are visited by at least 50,000 unique IP addresses from Singapore each month over a period of two months.
Currently, ten sites will be issued licensing notifications when the framework is launched. They include Yahoo! Singapore’s news site and nine sites run by Singapore’s two biggest media groups, state-owned MediaCorp and state-linked Singapore Press Holdings.
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