IMDA cancels TOC's class licence over refusal to declare funding

SINGAPORE — Socio-political website The Online Citizen's (TOC) class licence to operate its site and social media channels and accounts have been cancelled by the authorities on Friday (15 October), a month after the services were suspended.

The Infocomm Media Development Authority (IMDA) said TOC has not fully declared its funding sources since 2019.

"Despite multiple reminders and extensions of time granted by IMDA, TOC failed to comply with the requirement to make an annual declaration of its funding sources... TOC has also publicly stated that it will not be providing the required information," said the authority.

"TOC’s clear and persistent refusal to be transparent and to provide the necessary information to bring it into full compliance with the Broadcasting Act and the Broadcasting (Class Licence) Notification compels IMDA to proceed with cancellation of TOC’s class licence with immediate effect," it added.

Initially declared funding sources

Under the law, Registered Internet Content Providers which engage in promoting or discussing local political issues are required to declare their funding sources to prevent foreign interference in Singapore politics.

TOC had declared its funding sources when it first registered in 2018 but thereafter failed to do so.

"TOC failed to verify a donor and to clarify discrepancies in its foreign advertising revenue in its 2019 declaration, for which IMDA had issued a Warning on 4 May 2021," said the authority in a statement last month.

"For its 2020 annual declaration, TOC repeatedly failed to declare all its funding sources despite multiple reminders and extensions granted to TOC. TOC had also informed IMDA that it does not intend to comply with its obligations under the law," it added.

IMDA said it gave a final opportunity for TOC to explain its non-compliance with the Broadcasting (Class Licence) Notification by 13 September. The authority finally received a response after the deadline had lapsed, but said that it has "nonetheless fully considered TOC’s representations".

Subscribers allegedly paid for articles

In its statement last month, IMDA also said that it had repeatedly asked TOC to clarify various elements of its subscription framework. For instance, the model allowed subscribers to get specific articles written in return for funding received. "This is a cause for concern as it could be an avenue for foreign influence," said IMDA.

But TOC insisted that the subscriptions be excluded from full declaration of funding sources. In its 13 September reply to IMDA, TOC offered to provide the information only on condition that IMDA assures TOC that it will not seek further clarifications regarding TOC’s subscription framework and its funding sources.

But the requirement for TOC to provide the information is a requirement by law to ensure full transparency. "It is therefore not a matter for negotiation with IMDA," said the authority.

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