Wednesday, June 5, 2013

Regulating Singapore's internet-Two steps back

SINGAPOREANS live in one of the most wired countries in the world, and as such they are used to receiving gobbets of news on their smartphones and tablets as a daily if not hourly affair. So it was to the dismay of many that the Media Development Authority (MDA) put a draconian new licensing requirement into effect on June 1st. The authority’s purpose would seem to be to tighten its grip on what is already a claustrophobic media environment.

The new regulations demand that all websites concerned with the news be licensed, and also that each puts down a “performance-bond” of 50,000 Singapore dollars ($39,550). Any content deemed to be in breach of standards would have to be removed within 24 hours of being notified. This is all in addition to a host of prior regulations, including another licence scheme wherein both internet-service and content providers must follow an official code of practice and meet other conditions.

The new licensing framework is to affect everything that could be called a “Singapore news programme”, as defined by two criteria. The first is that the programme (or online newspaper, blog, etc) reports an average of one article or more about Singapore’s news and current affairs, per week, over a period of two months. The second that the content have “significant reach” by the standard set by the MDA, ie that it is read (or viewed, etc) by at least 50,000 unique IP addresses from within Singapore. That is a meagre threshold in a country with a population of just over 5m that enjoys a “wireless broadband population penetration rate” of 166%.

The traditional media are primarily represented by just two companies, one of them owned by Temasek, one of the state’s sovereign-wealth funds, and the other tending to have a pro-government stance. So the rise of alternative news websites, over the last six years or so, has been especially significant here. Singaporeans have taken to the internet with alacrity—especially for news about the country they call home.

Perhaps the first worrisome thing to note about the MDA’s new policy was the complete lack of public consultation beforehand. The authority announced the new rules just a couple of days before their implementation—along with a starter course of ten websites that will need to be licensed (nine are owned by those two largest of Singapore’s media companies, which are often associated with the state). Critics argue this may be a strategy to ease the implementation of the controversial change.

The second reason for anxiety is a bit subtler. While the ministry of communications and information has assured bloggers that they will not be affected by the new rules, the legislation doesn’t guarantee the same. The definition of “Singapore news programmes” is broad enough to include “any programme containing any news, intelligence, report of occurrence, or any matter of public interest, about any social, economic, political, cultural, artistic, sporting, scientific or any other aspect of Singapore,” though of course it “does not include any programme produced by or on behalf of the government.”

Yacoob Ibrahim, the communications minister, told reporters that the move provided “some form of parity between online news sites and traditional mainstream media newspapers and TV broadcasters.” On the face of it, that might make sense. Why shouldn’t online media be subject to the same regulations as those that pertain to other media platforms? Well, apart from the fact that those existing regulations have resulted in Singapore’s abysmal ranking in the world’s league tables for press freedom—it comes 149th out of 179 countries on Reporters Without Borders’ list; 153rd out of 197 countries in Freedom House’s. Licensing aside, content online is already subject to laws concerning libel and slander; incitement to public disorder; sedition; and more.

“What the authorities call “light-touch” regulation has been replaced with the mailed fist. The only certainty is the continuity of this approach online,” says Choo Zheng Xi, Co-founder of The Online Citizen, a popular self-styled “social news site” which receives visits from some 150,000 to 200,000 unique IP addresses monthly, most of them from within Singapore. The new regulations, many online users believe, is just a preview of things to come.

Mr Yaacob told The Business Times that at present the new regulations need apply only to Singapore-based news websites. But there are plans afoot to to bring foreign websites under the licensing framework next year.

“If [foreign media] are transmitting news to Singaporeans and Singapore is their target market, then we will have to do something about it," said Mr Yaacob

Several of the potentially affected sites and bloggers plan to protest the new licensing scheme on June 8th at HongLimPark in central Singapore—assembling offline, as well as online. As part of the same protest they are encouraging other Singaporeans to freeze their blogs and websites for 24 hours on June 6th.

Singapore’s press has been always been tightly regulated, both before and since the state won its independence. A new generation of “netizens” is hoping to find that the keyboard is nimbler—if not quite mightier—than the pen.

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Netizens of at least three neighbouring countries have faced official crackdowns in the past few years. In each case the state makes itself look almost desperately keen to protect itself. Earlier this year Thailand used its Computer Crime Act to set a precedent for intermediary liability with its conviction of Chiranuch Premchaiporn. Her crime was not responding quite quick enough to remove comments from her website, comments that were opposed to the monarchy.

In September 2012 Vietnam’s courts handed out long jail sentences to three prominent bloggers whom they accused of subverting the state. The bloggers had apparently “distorted the truth about State and Party, created anxiety among citizens and supported schemes to overthrow the government.” Another 13 journalists were jailed earlier this year, for content published online.

And bloggers in neighbouring Malaysia have not been spared either. Raja Petra Kamaruddin was jailed in May for alleging that Najib Razak, the deputy prime minister, and his wife were involved in the murder of a Mongolian model in 2006. Bloggers there can be charged under an Officials Secrets Act, an Internal Security Act and a Sedition Act, as well as for posting on “sensitive topics”—which tend to include corruption among officials. The Economist

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