Question Time in Parliament on 20 January 2014 saw a debate about the criteria for registration of websites with the Media Development Authority (MDA). MP for Sembawang GRC Vikram Nair had asked the Minister for Communications and Information what are the factors which the MDA takes into account in deciding which websites are required to register under the Broadcasting (Class Licence) Notification.
In his reply, Senior Minister of State (Communications and Information) Lawrence Wong cited a “longstanding principle” that foreign entities are not allowed to engage in Singapore politics and that “foreign interests should also not be allowed to control or worse, to manipulate our local media platforms which are prime vehicles for influence”.
He revealed that the Government was trying to prevent websites like The Independent, which he said engage in the “propagation, promotion or discussion of political or religious issues” and are structured as corporate entities, from receiving foreign funding, including foreign investments.
I sought further clarity from the Senior Minister of State, asking if overseas subscriptions or advertising would constitute “foreign funding”. He could only say that “there will be issues of advertising” and that MDA is still in discussions with The Independent about it.
The relevant transcript of the Parliament debate is below. The full transcript can be found here.
Mr Gerald Giam Yean Song (Non-Constituency Member): Madam, to follow up on the earlier question, will foreign funding include subscriptions from overseas as well as advertising from overseas? He mentioned that advertising restrictions do not apply for the traditional media because they are subject to other regulations. But would it apply to online media as well for both subscriptions and advertising?
Mr Lawrence Wong (for the Minister for Communications and Information): I understand the restrictions will apply more in terms of the actual receipt of funding by the corporate entity to run its business but there will be issues of advertising, because if you look at Internet advertising, it is growing. And then the question would be where do you get these sources of revenue from. So that is something that MDA has been in discussion with The Independent, particularly in sorting out some of the implementation issues. But the main concern with foreign funding would apply, firstly, to receipt of funding by the corporate entity itself to run its business which, I think, the undertaking by these entities would then address, because then they would undertake not to receive foreign funding. On advertising itself, I think that is something that we have to discuss the specifics, because it is more complicated in the Internet world where you may have difficulties in tracking the source of funding. But that is something that they are working through in discussion, the details, between MDA and The Independent.
[Source: Singapore Parliament Reports]
My thoughts on this issue were articulated during my recent Supper Club interview with the Straits Times, I had said this in response to a question from the reporter asking what I made of the moves by the Government to tighten the regulatory framework for websites:
I think the Government seems to be concerned about the influence of a few popular websites that might be able to sway public opinion. That’s why they feel a need to hold these websites “accountable”, so that they are kept in line to a certain extent. I feel that these restrictions on online websites are not a very productive use of Government resources. I think there are so many other things that the Government should be paying attention to, rather than spending so much time and energy and money on just regulating a few websites. What really are they so fearful about? Why can’t they just let Singaporeans decide what they want to read? Especially when it comes to news, why can’t they let Singaporeans decide what is the right news to read, rather than try to regulate every single channel of news?