Code of conduct ‘within the realm of possibilities’: MLC chief

A code of conduct for the Internet is possible, says Media Literacy Council chief. (AFP file photo)
A code of conduct for the Internet is possible, says Media Literacy Council chief. (AFP file photo)

The chairman of the Media Literacy Council (MLC) says its members have not had any discussion on the merits or otherwise of a code of conduct (COC) for the Internet.

However, he says that such a code "is within the realm of possibilities" when asked if the MLC might eventually recommend such a code to the government.

Tan confirmed to this writer in an email interview that the Media Development Authority (MDA), which staffs the MLC's secretariat, has "listed the code as one of the issues relating to cyber wellness that [the] MLC may wish to look at."

"If the council decides to consider the issue of the code, I expect that [the] Government will wait for the council's recommendation before making any decision," Tan says.

However, in remarks to the press on 8 August, Tan was reported to have said that "such a code is not the main aim of the council" and that regulating the Internet is "not the solution" to the ills in cyberspace which the government is purportedly concerned about.

"All I know is that one member — there may be others — has previously expressed opposition to such a code. I do not know what the other members' views are," Tan said when asked what the views of the MLC members are on the COC. Tan did not reveal who the member he was referring to is.

The possibility of a COC was first mooted by the Minister for Information, Communications and the Arts (Mica) in November last year. The minister, Dr Yaacob Ibrahim, said that the creation of the COC is "supposed to be a bottom up process", with online practitioners spearheading the development of the code — and his ministry "facilitating" the process.

However, his call has raised concerns among Internet users and new media practitioners that the COC is aimed at curbing free speech online and political discourse in particular.

In remarks to the press, Tan said — with regards to free speech — that he believes "some limits are justifiable but the burden of proof is always on those who wish to place any limits on freedom of expression to establish that such limits are necessary."

In 2008, the now defunct Advisory Council on the Impact of New Media on Society (AIMs) — of which Mr Tan was vice-chairman — had similarly recommended to the government that the Mica minister "be obliged to give reasons" for banning any films under Section 35 of the Films Act.

The recommendation was rejected by the government.

How effective will Tan and the MLC be this time round in assuring that the government will accept a similar recommendation when it comes to curbing free speech online?

"I have not had the opportunity of re-examining the circumstances behind the enactment of section 35 of the Films Act but would not be surprised if [the] government had explained its thinking behind this piece of legislation," Tan says.

"This was what I meant, namely that as a matter of principle when legislation is enacted to limit free speech the policy considerations behind such legislation must be explained. Lawmakers should justify the harm to society that the legislation seeks to avoid and why on balance the limit is necessary.

"Your question raises a slightly different issue as to whether a minister or other public official needs to provide a reason when a specific decision is taken to exercise a power that the law provides for. My view is that in general such reasons ought to be provided but I appreciate that there may be circumstances where not giving reasons can be justified.

"An uncontroversial example is where matters of national security are involved. In the case of section 35 of the Films Act, AIMS felt that reasons should be given. government did not agree. On such recommendations, the ultimate prerogative is that of the elected government of the day and not an unelected body such as AIMS or MLC," he notes.

The question of the role of the MLC has confused some, and appears to be unclear — is its role purely advisory or is it vested with powers or authority?

"One of MLC's roles is to advise [the] government on emerging issues relating to media," Tan explains. "The other role is to champion and develop public education and awareness programmes."

Tan, who had earlier said that the MLC is "a body independent of [the] government", says the council "must work closely with MDA, other arms of government and other stakeholders" in its public education and awareness role.

He also reveals that he is "in regular contact with officers from MDA (who staff MLC's secretariat) on logistical matters, as well as about information and background material" which he feels "may be useful".

Perhaps it is the MLC's apparent close ties to the MDA, which itself falls under the purview of Mica, which has also raised questions of whether the MLC is as "independent of the government" as Tan claimed.

It also doesn't help that the Mica minister, as reported in the press, had said that he believes an Internet code of conduct is necessary and that "Mica will supervise and guide the process of developing such a code."

The perception that the MLC is just a vehicle for the government to control free speech will persist among online practitioners and this distrust of the MLC is perhaps the biggest challenge the council faces as it tries to get the buy-in from those whose online behaviour it seeks to influence, even if it is vicariously.

Andrew helms as Editor-in-Chief. His writings have been reproduced in other publications, including the Australian Housing Journal in 2010. He was nominated by Yahoo! Singapore as one of Singapore's most influential media persons in 2011.