IMDA may act against The Online Citizen for not declaring funding sources

·Editorial Team
·3-min read
The Online Citizen has resumed operations while being investigated for criminal defamation. (Photo: Yahoo News Singapore)
The Online Citizen website. (FILE PHOTO: Yahoo News Singapore)

SINGAPORE — Socio-political website The Online Citizen (TOC) could face enforcement action from the Infocomm Media Development Authority (IMDA), after it repeatedly failed to declare all its funding sources for 2020.

IMDA said in a media statement on Tuesday (7 September) that despite granting multiple reminders and extensions to TOC, it has yet to make its annual declaration of its funding sources for last year, as required by Singapore's Broadcasting Act.

"TOC has informed IMDA that it does not intend to comply with its obligations under the law. IMDA has therefore asked TOC to explain its non-compliance," it said in the statement.

"If TOC is unable to provide good reasons for its non-compliance, IMDA may take appropriate enforcement action."

Under the Broadcasting (Class Licence) Notification Chapter of the Broadcasting Act, registered Internet content providers engaged in online promotion and discussion of political issues relating to Singapore are required to be transparent about their funding sources. 

This is to prevent such websites from being controlled or influenced by foreign entities, and ensure there is no foreign influence in domestic politics, said IMDA.

The agency noted that TOC had previously complied with this annual declaration when it first registered in 2018. However, since 2019, it has not fully complied with this obligation. 

It had 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 this year.

TOC wanted subscription fees exempt from declaration

In response, TOC editor Terry Xu said on Facebook that the website would comply with submitting the declaration if subscription fees can be exempted from the declaration. Xu also attached his lawyer's letter to IMDA in his post on Tuesday afternoon.

"We deem (IMDA's) questioning of the subscription model a form of harassment by the authorities and there is no justification of it doing so," Xu said in his post, adding that IMDA had rejected the request.

"IMDA's actions are nothing more than means of harassment and intimidation of the free press in Singapore. With Singapore's firm grasp on digital financial transactions, it is impossible for the government not to be aware of where the funds are coming from. 

"The licensing regime is simply meant to strike fear in the minds of the would-be donors and subscribers to prevent them from supporting independent journalism in Singapore."

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PM Lee Hsien Loong awarded damages in defamation suits against TOC

Last week, the High Court awarded Prime Minister Lee Hsien Loong a total of $210,000 in damages for two defamation suits he filed over an article published on TOC. PM Lee had separately sued Xu and Rubaashini Shunmuganathan, the author of the article that was published on 15 August 2019.

TOC’s article repeated allegations made by Lee’s siblings, Lee Hsien Yang and Dr Lee Wei Ling, published on their personal Facebook pages between 14 June 2017 and 15 August 2020. 

It suggested that after it was revealed to the late prime minister Lee Kuan Yew in end 2013 that the Singapore government had not gazetted the 38 Oxley Road property, he removed PM Lee – who is his eldest son – as an executor and trustee of his will. 

PM Lee's lawyers, Senior Counsel Davinder Singh and Pardeep Singh Khosa, also argued that the article contained other false and baseless allegations including PM Lee misleading the late Lee into thinking that 38 Oxley Road had been gazetted by the government, causing him to change his will to bestow the house to him.

The High Court found the article defamatory as it imputed that PM Lee had been dishonest with the late Lee. 

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