Around 1,500 Singaporeans led by local bloggers attended a rally Saturday to protest new government licensing rules for news websites that they say curtail freedom of expression. The peaceful rally, held at a free-speech park called Speakers' Corner, was organised by a coalition of bloggers called "Free My Internet" to protest the regulations which came into force this month. "The message today is that the government must trust us, and stop treating us like babies," said Choo Zheng Xi, a spokesman for the group and co-founder of popular political news website The Online Citizen. "It is an international embarrassment when governments around the world are working to deregulate the Internet, and Singapore, one of the wealthiest nations per capita, is going in the opposite direction," he told AFP. The group had also organised an "Internet blackout" on Thursday, where over 130 bloggers in the city-state replaced their homepages with black screens featuring the words "#FreeMyInternet". Under the rules, websites with at least 50,000 unique visitors from Singapore every month that publish at least one local news article per week over a period of two months must obtain an annual licence. Websites granted a licence will have to remove "prohibited content" such as articles that undermine "racial or religious harmony" within 24 hours of being notified by Singapore's media regulator, the Media Development Authority (MDA). The new rules have sparked anger in the city-state's robust blogging and social media community which has accused the government of a lack of consultation and raised fears the regulations are aimed at muzzling free expression. Blogs and social media have gained popularity as alternative sources of news and opinion in Singapore, where the mainstream newspapers are perceived to be pro-government. "The government should stop thinking that they can pass laws as and when they fancy," said rally participant Raymond Kwok, 29. "There must be a process of consultation, or it makes democracy and our parliament a farce," said the human resources executive. The government has sought to allay the fears, pointing out that blogs were not considered news portals and do not come under the rules. Minister for Communications and Information Yaacob Ibrahim said Tuesday the government would continue to take a "light touch" approach to regulating the Internet. Saturday's rally is the third major protest to take place at Speakers' Corner this year. Two rallies against the government's immigration policy were held earlier this year garnering crowds of more than 3,000, making them the country's biggest protests in decades.
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