Over 1,500 Singaporeans protest at rally against new online rules

Over 1,500 protestors turned up at the Free My Internet rally in Hong Lim Park on Saturday afternoon to protest against the Media Development Authority's (MDA) licensing scheme for online news sites.

The five-hour peaceful demonstration at the Speaker's Corner was organised by a group of popular social-political bloggers who felt that the new regime could severely curtail their freedom of speech.

Calling the protest "just the beginning" in a "sustained campaign for the withdrawal of MDA's regime", the organisers repeatedly demanded that the new regulations be revoked.

"We will reveal more details, it (the campaign) will include things like encouraging people to lobby their Members of Parliament (MPs) so their MPs can push for legislation change in Parliament," said Elaine Ee, co-founder of political news site publichouse.sg.

"It will include... encouraging a dialogue between us and the MDA with the view of withdrawing the legislation," she added.

Describing the government's sudden decision to impose restrictions on Internet sites as "high-handed" and "lacking in transparency", the bloggers took turns to deliver strongly worded speeches to attentive crowd members, many of whom carried cards or banners with anti-MDA sentiments.

"The government does not trust Singaporeans to handle the truth. The regulations are so broad that they make no sense," said lawyer Choo Zheng Xi, who is the co-founder of political news site The Online Citizen.

"Look at the breadth of the new laws, passed without any public consultation. Even the ministers couldn't explain them," he said, referring to a recent televised news segment where Acting Minister for Manpower Tan Chuan Jin was asked about who exactly the new rules would impact.

Noting that rights to freedom of expression matter, Choo said, "The battle hasn't ended, it's just beginning."

MDA's new regulations state that websites with at least 50,000 unique visitors from Singapore every month and publish at least one local news article per week over a period of two months are required to obtain an individual licence, renewable annually.

Under the licence, websites featuring "prohibited content" can be ordered to remove the offending material within 24 hours by the MDA.

The announcement drew widespread ire among many members of Singapore's online community who feel that the Internet is the only medium in the city-state's only where they can express alternative views. Traditional media outlets in the country are mainly perceived as pro-government.

Just last Thursday, an "Internet blackout" was organised by the same group of bloggers behind the protest. It saw over 170 Singapore websites replacing their home pages with blacked-out screens and the hashtag #FreeMyInternet.

Government "ignored us"

Protestors at the rally expressed frustration at the new regulations, with many telling Yahoo! Singapore that they found the laws unnecessary.

"I think its ridiculous how they just dropped this entire set of new laws on online news sites from nowhere and expect us to accept it. Honestly, I think it's an insult to the intelligence of Singaporeans. Why was the public not consulted? If these regulations are truly meant to protect us, how come no one asked us what we wanted?" asked marketing consultant Danny Yeo, 34.

"Regulations should only be set after the public has been consulted, and the issue debated in Parliament. Why this lack of transparency? I am strongly against the idea that the government should be allowed to decide what we can or cannot read," said retired teacher Molly Lee, 64.

Others said that while they were unhappy with the rules, they were also skeptical that the rules would be revoked.

"Its great that so many people are here to make a stand, and that the numbers are growing, but honestly, I don't think the government will listen. They aren't going to get off their pedestals and take the rules back," said poly student Nurashikin bte Omar, 18.

In response to the backlash over the past week, the MDA and Minister for Communications and Information Yaacob Ibrahim have made several attempts to address a growing list of questions from citizenry on the new regulations.
Yaacob 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.
The MDA has also said that the new licensing scheme does not change existing regulations on content published for websites, which are already adhered to even by news sites like Yahoo! Singapore, which already operates on a class licence scheme.

With additional reporting by Jeanette Tan

Related links:
Singapore bloggers black out sites in protest of MDA licensing scheme
MDA clarifies new licensing scheme
Singaporean online community angered by new MDA scheme
COMMENT: FreeMyInternet - why the big hoo-ha