More than 130 Singapore-based websites are taking part in a 24-hour online blackout in protest of the government’s licensing scheme for news websites.
By Thursday morning, at least 134 sites blocked access to their content while providing a redirect link to a page called #FreeMyInternet, the name of an online movement started by prominent socio-political bloggers in Singapore.
The page carries a line that reads, "This is what it feels like if you are not able to read or know".
Details of a protest planned by the group for Saturday afternoon were also provided below the page's hashtag header.
The blackout, which started at the stroke of midnight Thursday, was initiated after the Media Development Authority announced Tuesday last week that online news sites with significant reach and regularly report on Singapore would need to apply for individual licences.
Under such a licence, the sites would have to post a $50,000 "performance bond" and take down objectionable content within 24 hours of being ordered to by the media watchdog.
MDA identified 10 sites that would fall under the scheme, including Yahoo! Singapore’s and those under state-owned MediaCorp and Singapore Press Holdings, which has close links to the government. The regulator has not ruled out adding more sites to the list.
Choo Zheng Xi, co-founder of socio-political community site TheOnlineCitizen, which is taking part in the blackout, says the move "connects information creators to information consumers in common defence of free speech".
"Singaporeans take their freedom of expression seriously, and this blackout provides an opportunity for every Singaporean involved in creating content to share this very visual message with every other internet user who will be consuming that content," he told Yahoo! Singapore in an email interview.
Added documentary filmmaker Lynn Lee, whose site lianainfilms.com is participating in the ongoing blackout, "This feels like a haphazard attempt at censorship... Times have changed and Singaporeans are tired of being patronised. The new regulations undermine our credibility as a developed nation. (We) are not unthinking sheep who have to be told what to be read."
"Authorities should do the right thing and stop trying to control alternative voices on the internet," continued Lee. "Better still, they should unshackle mainstream media in Singapore."
Despite the regulations already being officially gazetted without public consultation or any parliamentary debate, a move that received widespread criticism, Choo feels there is still hope in sending "a big enough message" to the country's leaders.
"If we don't defend and fight for our constitutional freedoms, they will be removed from us like a thief in the night," he said. "If we send a big enough message to our elected representatives, I have faith that they will see sense and withdraw the licensing regime."
The new licensing scheme immediately sparked furore online after it was announced, and the MDA's Facebook page has since been riddled with comments and posts critical of the scheme.
An online poll conducted by Mediacorp’s Channel NewsAsia earlier this week found that more than 72 per cent of respondents said "Yes" to whether or not the licensing scheme would limit online news content.
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.
Meanwhile, at least 950 people have expressed their intention to attend and participate in the #FreeMyInternet protest scheduled for 4pm on Saturday at Hong Lim Park. Additionally, more than 3,100 people have signed an online petition to seek reversal to the new ruling.
"This is a protest for all Singaporeans to participate in," said Choo. "Everyone should be concerned that our constitutionally-protected right to free speech can be summarily regulated down by an unelected authority."
COMMENT: Keep calm and carry on posting
COMMENT: Internet regulation – even MPs and the MLC not consulted?
COMMENT: #FreeMyInternet – Why the big hoo-ha?
MDA clarifies online news licensing scheme amid criticism
Singaporean online community angered by new media rule