Wednesday, 5 June 2013

Why the new MDA online licensing framework is censorship

I've been using the Internet for a very long time -- since 1995 or so. I remember the days of pine, lynx and tin; irc, talk and finger. I remember soc.culture.singapore and soc.culture.singapore.moderated. I remember seeing the very first Singapore National Education post from mrbrown, back when podcasts haven't been invited and he was probably wearing pants everyday instead of shorts.

And yes, I also remember when the Singapore Broadcasting Authority (MDA's predecessor) first introduced the Class Licence scheme in 1996, and the firestorm of anger within the (very much smaller) internet community then.

To SBA/MDA's credit, it has indeed, for the most part, administered the Class Licence scheme with a "light touch" in the 17 years since. So when various ministers say that the MDA would continue its "light touch" regime, I actually think that will be true on a day-to-day basis -- for the most part.

But that is not the whole picture. And sadly, so far no government official or representative (except perhaps for MP Baey Yam Keng) has seen it fit to squarely and directly confront the issues raised by bloggers, and as the Talking Point programme has shown, by regular Singaporeans as well.

The one glaring exception to SBA/MDA's "light touch" regime provides a cautionary tale on what happens when a regulator has broad discretion in a regulatory environment with ambiguously-worded legislation.

Sintercom (which stood for Singapore Internet Community) was the very first, and in its time the leading, socio-political website in Singapore. In 2001, just before the General Election that year, the SBA made a ham-fisted attempt at getting Sintercom to register as a political website. It did register, but eventually decided to shut down soon after. I can still remember the consternation in the community when that happened. From what I can recall, the summary at seems pretty accurate.


The new licensing framework for online news sites does not establish regulatory parity between the Internet on the one hand and print and TV on the other; the decentralised and democratising nature of the Internet, as compared to the resource-heavy nature of print and TV, makes that simply impossible.

But the new framework does establish regulatory parity between the 10 websites targeted by MDA, and the print and TV outlets already regulated by MDA. It does so, by subjecting the targeted websites to the same sort of opaque licensing regime as print and TV outlets are subject to, which ultimately tends to encourage self-censorship and threatens media independence.

(Those who would claim that the mainstream media is free and independent in Singapore, would do well to read "OB Markers: My Straits Times Story" by former SPH editor-in-chief Cheong Yip Seng, and then take a look at the Newspapers and Printing Press Act.)

The new framework allows the MDA to take the targeted websites out of the existing Class Licence framework, and issue them with individual licences under Section 8 of the Broadcasting Act. Section 8(2) states:

"Every broadcasting licence, other than a class licence, granted by the Authority shall be in such form and for such period and may contain such terms and conditions as the Authority may determine."

Basically, the MDA can decide what the terms of the individual licences are, and presumably can also decide that the terms are confidential, such that the public will never actually know what the licences say. After all, does anyone know what is in SPH's or Mediacorp's licences?

Today, the MDA has decided that the targeted websites must take down content in 24 hours and put up a $50,000 performance bond -- conditions which do not appear in any published legislation, but only in the Government's press statements.

Tomorrow, the MDA can change the licensing terms to say that the websites must also proactively screen content and obtain MDA approval for editorial appointments -- and we may never know. I'm not saying that the MDA will do this, but Singaporeans need to know that they can.

And for the record, Singaporeans do not know what other terms, if any, exist in the individual licences issued by the MDA to the targeted websites.

Laws exist as much to empower governments to do good, as to protect citizens from their governments.  Unfortunately, most Singapore legislation focuses on the former and completely disregards the latter. This MDA regulation is just the latest example of that, and the way it was introduced is just a very stark reminder of how imbalanced our legislative system is, that something with such potentially broad impact can be made into binding law with no discussion at all.


Let's go back to the various assurances proffered by the Government, in the days since it announced the new regulations. For me, they have all been meaningless chaff, smoke and mirrors that seek to distract from the central truth: that the MDA has established a framework whereby it can now easily take a website out of the Class Licence scheme, and impose whatever terms it wants on that website. All of this can be done, without any shred of transparency or accountability. Even if the same content standards apply for both the Class Licence and individual licences, the levers through which the MDA can exert power and influence are radically different.

I drew two main conclusions from all the empty statements from the Government:

  • The Government has issued many, many clarifications. It has had many, many opportunities to clarify whether non-commercial websites like The Online Citizen fall within this new licensing framework, which it has spurned. I can only conclude that commerciality or otherwise is not relevant to this. Acting Minister Tan Chuan-Jin seems to have confirmed as much on Talking Point, where he seems to say that blogs (non-commercial) can be subject to individual licensing if  it "reports news", which is really a meaningless and arbitrary distinction in today's world. 
  • The Government has thrown up strawman after strawman in trying to justify the new framework. The references to racist comments, need to ensure that sites co-operate in taking down content, etc. all become meaningless, when you consider that:
  1. apparently all of the 20-something take-down requests issued by the MDA in the past 17 years have been successful.
  2. of these requests, only 1 was not for sex-related advertisements, and that was a takedown request issued to YouTube over the "Innocence of Muslims" video -- and YouTube is not on the list of targeted websites. Let me repeat that: the MDA does not see fit to individually license the one website that has actually received a takedown notice over potentially inflammatory content in the past 17 years.

The new framework is ostensibly to ensure fair and accurate news reporting, and yet the Government throws up justifications that have nothing to do with news reporting at all. Indeed, the Government has not cited one single example of unfair or inaccurate news reporting. And, as either Bertha Henson or Arun Mahizhnan pointed out on Talking Point, inaccurate news reporting is best combated by clarifications and rights of reply -- not outright removal of content.

So the objective of this new licensing framework must be something else altogether. The obvious suspect is censorship, or rather the power to censor, over independent media outlets like Yahoo! and The Online Citizen. (See also my interview in the Straits Times last Saturday June 1.)

The Government has had ample opportunity to make its case for why that is not so. It has failed abjectly in every single attempt.

I am overseas and will not be able to join the #freemyinternet protest on Saturday June 8. I will however blackout this blog on Thursday June 6, in solidarity with my fellow bloggers in Singapore. I have also signed the petition calling for the withdrawal of the new licensing framework.

73% of respondents to the Talking Point live poll think that the new licensing framework will limit online news content. If you do not want to see that happen, please sign the petition and join the protest at Hong Lim Park from 4-7pm on Saturday.


The Pariah said...

How to get the "RIGHT" thing from a "WRONG" question?

To ensure that we get the "right" thing, last night Mediacorp framed a "helpful" Q:
Why not Koh Li-Net of MDA, why Tan Chuan Jin on Talking Point panel?

Whereas, the "right" Q should have been:
Why not Yakult from MCI, why The Jinx from MOM when the Talking Point is on a MDA regulation under MCI?

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