By Calvin Cheng
The drama that has unfolded over Singapore’s Media Development Authority’s decision to license some news websites in Singapore is tragic.
On the one hand, we have a government completely bewildered over the reaction towards what they see as a minor update to its regulatory laws.
On the other hand, we have freedom-of-the-internet advocates going apoplectic over what it sees as a major policy decision that amounts to curtailment of free-speech and the death-knell of alternative news websites in Singapore.
The two positions and the reactions are so far apart and so irreconcilable that the call for dialogue seems futile.
One reason for the divide is the difference in time frame from which the two parties view the decision: the government is looking at the situation now, and its opponents, the possible impact in the future.
The government’s decision is actually made on very simple logic.
Current print newspapers at the moment are owned by only two media groups: Singapore Press Holdings and state-owned Mediacorp. These old-media firms are licensed and regulated. The exact same version on the internet is not. This is a regulatory anomaly given media convergence. Therefore, the regulation was refreshed to cover the online versions.
Therefore, when some of my blogger friends asked me who I thought was the target of the regulations, the answer is right before their eyes -- it is precisely the list of 10 that the MDA has released.
It does not make sense that the Straits Times is regulated but the Straits Times online is not. It does not make sense that TODAY is covered under the Newspapers and Printing Presses Act but TODAY Online is not. It was a regulatory black-hole that did not take into account the invention of the Internet and it needed to be plugged.
Yes, it’s that simple.
The only anomaly was Yahoo!, which has in recent years assembled a journalistic team that covers Singapore news.
But Yahoo! is no independent blogger or internet start-up. It is a multinational, billion-dollar media company that hires teams of personnel to deal with governments in every country they operate in. $50,000 is chump change to Yahoo! and it is absurd to think that Yahoo! Singapore would shut-up shop because of this bond. It is also naïve to think that Yahoo! Singapore is not already ready to work with the Singapore government and abide by Singapore laws.
Make no mistake – Yahoo! is not an activist website set up to promote freedom of information but a billion-dollar listed corporation looking to make profits. The regulations in fact puts it on equal standing with SPH and Mediacorp’s online news sites and enables them to operate a fully-fledged, well-financed online newspaper that is not state owned.
The internet advocates are on the other hand not completely unjustified in being concerned, even if some of the reaction borders on hyperbole. "Draconian", "disaster", "extreme" and claiming that these regulations will end free-speech on the internet, are surely epithets better reserved for regimes that truly seek to control the internet, like China or North Korea.
However, it is true that the regulations are drafted so widely that it could be foreseeably be used to regulate more than the initial 10 sites in the future.
These fears are, however, in my opinion, exaggerated.
Firstly, if a rogue government wants to shut opposition up and censor its alternative views, it does not have to rely on such weak regulatory laws. It already has far harsher laws it can use, such as the Sedition Act and the Internal Security Act. Surely charging someone for sedition, which technically are subversive acts that incite insurrections, are going to strike more fear than asking someone to put up a $50,000 bond? Surely the threat of being interrogated by the Internal Security Department is scarier than being asked to take down objectionable content?
I am thus perplexed when critics argue that the new laws are draconian and drafted to strike fear into Singaporeans. Are they arguing that it is preferable to rely on the existing laws and charge a website owner with sedition when hate-speech is published, rather than use the new regulations to require him to take it down? That’s quite unbelievable.
Secondly, what some freedom-of-the-press advocates are asking for does not exist. Censorship and regulation of the press is not a choice between two extremes. It is not a choice between complete censorship and no regulation. Every country on this planet regulates their press in some way, either through press complaints departments, independent watchdogs or through press commissions. Civil and criminal legislation (such as defamation laws and anti-pornography laws) circumscribe complete freedom to say what we want in every jurisdiction on earth.
Thus, between the option between complete censorship and complete freedom of the press lies policy options that each state has to decide for itself, not by dogmatic adherence to liberal ideology, and least of all by "press-freedom" rankings compiled by foreigners with no stake in our country.
Thirdly, even if there are no state regulations on press, the press is hardly free. In the West, the press is not the independent, morally-upright defender of democratic rights and truth that some would have us believe. Instead, most of the major newspapers and TV stations are owned by media barons whose objectives are to make profit.
I have been seeing the Latin quote Quis Custodiet Ipsos Custodes (“Who guards the guardians”) quite frequently in the current debate. Some freedom-of-the-press advocates would have us believe that the press plays this role, and that an independent, free press is the only guard against a rogue government. That is, the American notion of the Fourth Estate.
This is a terrible corruption of democratic values.
The government in a democracy is elected by the people but who elects the press? Who elected the media barons who own the press that purport to guard the government? The question – who guards the guardians – should not be asked about the government, but instead of the press. It is the people who guard the government, and it is the government who must guard the press and the unelected, unaccountable corporate interests that own the press. If governments are not responsible for regulating the press than who is? Billionaire media-owners like Mark Zuckerberg? The answer is clear, and getting it the other way round is not only undemocratic, but indeed is a corruption of democracy.
Fourthly, the fear of having our behaviour regulated is exaggerated. Newsflash: our behaviour is already regulated every day by something we call laws. If people could regulate themselves, human societies would not need laws.
I am sure it is nice to believe, as some liberals do, that everyone can judge right and wrong for themselves, that good behaviour will crowd-out bad behaviour, and it is politically incorrect to state the opposite. It is, however, not only politically correct to point out the fact that we already live in societies governed by laws that punish those that are unable to judge right and wrong for themselves, it would be self-delusional to deny it. What is up for discussion is thus not whether the Internet should be regulated, like many aspects of human life in ALL societies already are, but how much regulation there should be.
Finally, the new licensing regime is a massive opportunity for alternative media. One reason for the shock in reading the definitions (e.g. of what constitutes news) in the new licensing regime is that nobody has read the old regulations that regulate print media (the definitions are the same – which is why the government is also bewildered as to why the fuss).
The protests against the online regulations are barking up the wrong tree. The problem up until the advent of the Internet has never been the licensing requirements but the licenses themselves. The government has never issued a license to publish a newspaper other than to the two state-owned media companies, which is why nobody, but the executives of SPH and Mediacorp has ever bothered reading the requirements. (which they probably know by heart)
Now for the first time in history, a non-state owned company, Yahoo! has been licensed as a news provider. This is a massive milestone that not only has political implications, but business ones.
The government has been forced to recognise that with the Internet, it can no longer choose who to grant the license to, but in fact, has no choice but to license whoever has the ability to write compelling news content that can reach at least 50,000 unique internet users monthly.
This throws up a very interesting and crucial question: if media has converged, and the government has introduced this licensing regime to treat online news as the same as print news, will it also treat print news as the same as online news? Can Yahoo! now, a licensed online news provider, print a paper-edition of its online news (if it wanted to) and finally challenge the duopoly of SPH and Mediacorp? If it cannot, then the government will be called-out on its decision to treat online and print news as the same. If it can, it will be a seismic development that can finally destroy the monopoly the Straits Times has over print news.
If I had a leading alternative news website that reaches more than 50,000 readers, instead of blacking out my website and going to Hong Lim to protest, I would be right now leveraging off the brand recognition and raising finance to start the Singapore equivalent of Huffington Post. Once I finance such a website, I would be looking forward to hiring a team of full-time professionals to launch an online newspaper instead of relying on volunteers who quit every few months. And if I had such a website, I would be looking forward to fundamentally disrupt the news industry in Singapore by first creating a successful online news website, and then launching a print one based on the same content (since the Government says it is the same).
But I don’t have such a website. Which is why I can only follow the same advice that I would give individual bloggers and netizens who do NOT qualify for such a license:
Keep calm and carry on posting
Calvin Cheng was a Former Nominated Member of Parliament and a member of the Media Literacy Council. He writes in his own capacity and blogs at www.beyondtheemotive.com
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