Human rights group urges Singapore to pull web licensing scheme

Human Rights Watch joins calls for the Singapore government to drop a new licensing regime to regulate online news sites.

An international human rights group has joined calls for the Singapore government to drop a new licensing regime to regulate online news sites.

In a statement posted on its website on Friday, the Human Rights Watch (HRW) said that “the new rules will further discourage independent commentary and reporting on the Internet in Singapore”.

Announced by the Media Development Authority (MDA) on Tuesday last week, the scheme requires online news sites with significant reach and that regularly report on Singapore to apply for individual licences. Under that type of licence, the sites would have to post a S$50,000 "performance bond" and take down objectionable content within 24 hours of being ordered to by the media watchdog.

MDA so far identified 10 sites that fall under the scheme, including Yahoo! Singapore’s and those under state-owned MediaCorp and Singapore Press Holdings.

“Singapore’s new licensing requirement casts a chill over the city-state’s robust and free-wheeling online communities, and will clearly limit Singaporeans’ access to independent media,” said Cynthia Wong, senior Internet researcher at HRW. “Websites will be forced into the role of private censors on behalf of the government.”

HRW also said the new licensing rules “seem intended to impose another check on popular websites more than to reduce any genuine harm”.

Singapore bloggers and citizen journalists have opposed the new rules and called on the MDA to drop the licensing scheme, which they fear could be expanded in the future to include their volunteer-run blogging platforms.

Prior to the new licensing regime, online news sites were already bound to comply with the Internet Code of Practice, which requires Internet service providers to restrict access to content that is “against public interest” or offends “good taste or decency”, including “material that advocates homosexuality or lesbianism”.

HRW said, “the definition of what might be deemed ‘against public interest’ is vague and can be used arbitrarily by the government, leaving the licensing regime and content regulations open to selective enforcement and abuse”.

Skewed portrayal of LGBTs

HRW also said that, given Singapore still criminalises same-sex relations, instituting a 24-hour takedown requirement for material that advocates homosexuality will further skew the portrayal of lesbian, gay, bisexual and transgender (LGBT) individuals.

In an interview with Gay Star News last December, Pink Dot’s spokesperson Paerin Choa said “content that justifies, promotes or glamorises gay lifestyle is banned” in Singapore’s mainstream media, leading to “an ignorance about what being gay is about in the general public”.

HRW added that the licensing regime is inconsistent with international human rights standards on freedom of expression. In his May 2011 report to the United Nations Human Rights Council, the special rapporteur on the promotion and protection of freedom of opinion and expression, Frank La Rue, wrote that registration and licensing requirements “cannot be justified in the case of the Internet.”

Wong also warned, “Singapore is placing its status as a world-class financial centre at clear risk by extending its record of draconian media censorship to the digital world.”

In response to the backlash over the new licensing scheme, Minister for Communications and Information Yaacob Ibrahim has repeatedly stressed that the objective of the licensing scheme is not to suppress internet freedom, but to level the playing field for mainstream news outlets, which he says face existing restrictions on its publishing scope that other online sites currently do not.

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