Reading about the Media Development Authority (MDA)’s new ruling requiring online news websites to be licensed individually, and the strong statement in response issued by a group of prominent bloggers, gave me a sense of déjà vu from a few years ago.
Back in 2007, the Government announced that it was setting up the Advisory Council on the Impact of New Media on Society, or AIMS – not to be confused with AIM, the $2 IT company owned by the PAP – to study the “far-reaching social, ethical, legal and regulatory implications” of online media, and “make recommendations to the Government on how these issues should be managed”.
AIMS was to be headed by Mr Cheong Yip Seng, the former Editor-in-Chief of the English and Malay Newspapers Division at Singapore Press Holdings (SPH). I had not entered politics yet, but was an active political blogger. My fellow bloggers and I were aghast! The setting up of AIMS seemed like an insidious way of regulating the free-wheeling Internet, starting with a committee which we figured would, in all likelihood, recommend to the Government a host of ways to clamp down on free speech on the Internet.
With this concern in mind, 13 socio-political bloggers, which included the likes of Choo Zheng Xi (then-editor of The Online Citizen [TOC]), Alex Au (aka Yawning Bread), Cherian George (the communications and media professor from NTU) and myself, decided to issue a petition to the then-Minister for Information, Communications and the Arts, Dr Lee Boon Yang, voicing our strong objections to the regulation of political content on the Internet. We also called for the repeal of Section 33 of the Films Act, which banned all “party political” films. The letter was made public and the media nicknamed us the “Bloggers 13”.
What developed subsequently was actually quite heartening. Mr Cheong’s committee decided to buck government convention: they actively engaged us bloggers, Mr Cheong and some of his committee members attended our public forum, they noted down feedback we had posted online (and reflected it in their report), and even gave us embargoed copies of their report, before inviting us to attend their press conference (presumably so we could blog about it).
Most importantly, the AIMS report released in December 2008 was, in our opinion, balanced and surprisingly progressive. It laid out four principles: (a) Government regulation should be used as a last resort; (b) “Free-for-all” is not feasible; (c) Shifting the focus from regulation towards engagement; and (d) Community participation is key.
On point (a) about non-regulation, this is what AIMS wrote in its introduction to the report:
One of the long-standing debates about the Internet is whether it should and can be regulated. Given the borderless nature of the Internet, it is difficult to enforce laws regulating the Internet across different jurisdictions.
Hence, one principle is to avoid regulating what is arguably “unregulable”. Laws are important, but they should be used only as a last resort. As the maxim goes, “legislate in haste, repent at leisure”. Using laws as a first measure to deal with online problems is unwise as the Internet and its users are continuously evolving and can creatively route around laws and regulations, especially if they are not well thought through.
— AIMS Report (2008), “Engaging Media, Challenging Old Assumptions”, p. 7
The detailed report went further:
…AIMS recognises that twelve years have passed since the Class Licence Scheme was first established in 1996. We have reviewed the matter and feel that changes are in order for these reasons: First, the rules unnecessarily deter free speech. Second, it has hardly been enforced. Third, Singaporeans deserve more political space. We therefore make the following recommendations:
(a) Lift registration requirement for individuals, bodies of persons and political parties
AIMS recommends the removal of the registration requirement for individuals, bodies of persons and political parties that provide any programme for the propagation, promotion or discussion of political or religious issues relating to Singapore through the Internet websites.
(b) Make processes of the Class Licence Scheme more transparent
The Media Development Authority (MDA) should study how to make the existing processes more transparent to assuage netizens’ concerns that these rules are in place to clamp down on them. For example, details of MDA investigations should be made public so that people can judge for themselves whether the processes and decisions were fair.
— AIMS Report (2008), “Engaging Media, Challenging Old Assumptions”, p. 16
These were among 26 recommendations that AIMS made to the Government. The Government accepted only 17 of them.
This latest MDA requirement for 10 websites, including Yahoo! Singapore News, to register for individual licenses, and to post a $50,000 bond, seems to fly in the face of some of AIMS’ recommendations. Many people are naturally taken aback, and it is not just bloggers and netizens who are riled up. I have heard some harsh words from people who normally hold the Government in high esteem — and some groans from journalists.
For now, the new regulations, in and of themselves, probably have a limited effect on free speech. Apart from Yahoo!, all the other sites are owned by SPH and Mediacorp — no tears shed for them. Yahoo! itself is not a small outfit and should have no problem complying with the regulations — $50,000 is but a fraction of what they just paid for Tumblr. However, the concern is that other volunteer-run websites like TOC and more free-wheeling sites like TR Emeritus and The Real Singapore would soon fall under the Sword of Damocles that is now hanging over them. (Full disclosure: I was a former deputy editor of TOC, but stepped down when I joined the Workers’ Party [WP] in 2009.) TOC has already stated that it will shut down if asked to register and post the bond. The MDA has responded to say that TOC does not meet the criteria, even though TOC itself believes it does, and has produced web stats to prove it.
Would the Government want to be seen to be “shutting down” websites like TOC and TRE, which are known to express very independent and sometimes sharp views against government policies? That does not seem tenable, unless of course the Government is prepared to suffer ridicule, both domestically and internationally. And if these sites are faced with no choice but to shut down, what do you think all their writers are going to do? They will set up their own blogs, of course! In fact, many of the most-read socio-political blogs were set up and are run by TOC alumni.
This latest move from the Government has raised many questions and concerns. When Parliament next sits, you can expect WP MPs to be asking the Minister for Information and Communications many of these questions, and pressing him for a response.