MDA clarifies online news licensing scheme amid criticism

Singapore activists and bloggers behind some popular independent websites call on MDA to withdraw licensing scheme


Singapore’s media watchdog on Friday clarified new licensing rules for online news sites after the scheme was widely criticised by Singapore’s online community as a move to further restrict press freedom in the city-state.

In a post on its Facebook page, the Media Development Authority (MDA) said the new licensing framework would apply only to sites focused on reporting Singapore news and that bloggers’ personal sites would not be subject to the new licensing terms.

“The framework is not an attempt to influence the editorial slant of news sites,” MDA asserted.

In a statement Thursday, more than 20 activists and bloggers behind alternative Singapore news sites such as The Online Citizen, publichouse.sg and TR Emeritus called on MDA to junk the licensing scheme, which they fear would impact citizens’ ability to “receive diverse news information”.

Under the scheme, online news sites will need to obtain individual licences if they report at least once a week on Singapore’s news and current affairs over a period of two months, and are visited by at least 50,000 unique IP addresses from Singapore each month. They must then put up a performance bond of $50,000 and comply within 24 hours with any of the regulator’s order to take down objectionable content.

The MDA has identified 10 online news sites, including Yahoo! Singapore’s and those under the two biggest local media groups, Singapore Press Holdings and state-owned Mediacorp, that would fall under the scheme.

Currently, news sites are automatically granted a “class license” that already require them to observe guidelines prohibiting content that incites racial or religious hatred, among others, said the regulator.

In its post, MDA said it would only step in when complaints are raised to its attention and when it has assessed that the content is in breach of the guidelines. In the past two years, it has only issued one take-down notice for the “Innocence of Muslims” video.

Also, the watchdog clarified that the $50,000 performance bond need not necessarily entail cash up front, and that licencees can consider a banker’s guarantee or insurance.

The bond was among the features of the licencing framework that raised concern. The bloggers and activists who called on MDA to ditch the scheme said that the bond would potentially be beyond the means of volunteer-run and personal online platforms like theirs.

The group had also said they believe that the introduction of the licencing regime had not gone through the proper and necessary consultation, and had been introduced without clear guidance.

The clarifications of the MDA did not appear to mollify critics and seemed to spark even more questions.

Publichouse.sg’s Andrew Loh noted that the MDA’s clarification on what constituted reporting Singapore news did not jive with its statement on Tuesday defining a “Singapore news programme”.
“I think you're just confusing everyone,” he said in a comment on the MDA’s Facebook page.

Loh and other members of the public also posted on MDA’s Facebook page comments expressing anger over an interview with BBC in which Yaacob Ibrahim, Minister for Communications and Information, which oversees the MDA, said, “As long as they [the public] go onto online news sites to read the news, I think it is important for us to make sure that they read the right things….”

Singapore has been accused of having restrictive controls over the media. Recently, it fell 14 places to a record-low 149th position in the latest annual press freedom ranking of Reporters Without Borders.

Related links:
Singapore defends Internet licencing rules
10 online news sites must follow traditional media regulations: MDA
Singaporean online community angered by new media rule