The Economist's recent story on the Singapore Media Development Authority's new regulations on online news websites contains the headline, “Two steps back.” I would like to characterize this as a typical knee-jerk reaction to censorship. In the current back-and-forth between outspoken netizens and the government over the impact of new regulations, there is no clear last word. The crux of the debate essentially boils down to the fine-tuning of the social contract between a people and their government, a process that takes time and trust.
The new regulations stipulate that online news sites that report regularly on issues relating to Singapore and have significant readership in the country will require a license from the MDA to operate. Licensing applies to news sites that meet two conditions: They must report an average of one article a week on Singapore's current affairs over a period of two months, and they must be visited by at least 50,000 unique IP addresses from Singapore each month over a two-month period. Such news sites will be required to post a performance bond of $50,000 consistent with that required of niche TV broadcasters. New sites would also be legally required to remove objectionable content in breach of MDA’s content standards within 24 hours notice.
As explained by the government, the latest regulations are attempting to bring the same content standard that traditional print media faces to online content providers, in acknowledgement of the growing reach and influence of online news media. The minister for communications and information has maintained that the latest regulations do not in any way state that such news sites “cannot question or highlight the shortcomings of government policies, as long as the assessments are well-intentioned, and not based on factual inaccuracies with the intention of misleading the public”.
Meanwhile, civil-society activists organized a #FreeMyInternet movement. They staged a daylong online blackout that included 150 websites and blogs to protest the new licensing requirements and remind Singaporeans of their right to the free flow of information.
While the new regulations do not affect small-time bloggers and websites with a fraction of the viewership of regular online news providers, opponents have claimed that such online censorship is a fundamental breach of the freedom to freely report things on the internet. The government explains its relative restraint in issuing take-down notices. Since the class-license scheme came into effect in 1996, a take-down notice has been issued 24 times — once for religiously offensive content concerning the “Innocence of Muslims” video last year, and the rest for prohibited content such as pornography and advertisements soliciting for sex or sex chats.
Some Singaporeans have also taken issue with the lack of public consultation on the law, one which the government defends as unnecessary since there is no “fundamental shift in policy approach."
Of the 10 local news websites directly affected by the new regulations, seven are run by Singapore Press Holdings, whose publications already tend to maintain a pro-government stance. Yet opponents take issue with the fact that the new censorship regime sets a precedent for more freedom-limiting regulation.
Singaporeans lament the absence of the Fourth Estate in politically repressive, economically prosperous Singapore while the government maintains that censorship is a vital duty of the state to protect the multicultural fabric of Singaporean society. In the end it boils down to the social contract and trust of the governed that the government has its best interests at heart.