By Jeremiah O. Magpile
Singapore’s decision on May 28 to impose new licensing rules on domestic news websites sparked a firestorm among the country’s internet users and led to a 2,500-person protest on June 8 against efforts to enforce online media censorship. A day before the protest, about 160 websites went offline and replaced their homepages with the message “Free My Internet.”
The message has so far fallen on deaf ears. Existing licensing guidelines already require online news outlets to keep their sites free of material that could be harmful to public interest, public morality, public order, public security and national harmony, public interest, or national security. Under new requirements, Singapore’s Media Development Authority (MDA) will also be able to remove content from licensed websites with a day’s notice if that content undermines “racial or religious harmony.”
Additionally, websites that attract over 50,000 unique visits per month or publish at least one article every two months must post an annual bond of $39,500. Most citizen journalists cannot afford the bond. Protestors argue that the new regulations are redundant and meant to stifle internet-based media outlets, especially personal blogs and news commentary websites, which are often critical of the ruling People’s Action Party.
The licensing requirements currently affect 10 websites, including Yahoo! Singapore, Singapore Press Holdings MediaCorp, and Channel News Asia. The latter two are Singapore’s largest publisher and state-owned broadcaster, respectively.
The arbitrary enforcement of these vague parameters has contributed to Singapore’s relatively poor showing in the 2013 Press Freedom Index from Reporters Without Borders. The index ranks Singapore 149th out of 179 countries, behind neighboring Malaysia, Thailand, and Indonesia.
Although the city-state has a history of repressing print and broadcast media, Singaporeans have found recourse in a relatively free internet. The new financial penalties and potential suspension of licenses therefore represent a significant step backward for press freedom in Singapore.
Still, the government insists that the new rules only apply to sites that report on domestic news, are not designed to curb internet freedoms, and are only meant to make news media more accountable. But the MDA also admitted on Facebook that if blogs begin to act like news sites, it will evaluate them accordingly.
The backlash against the new licensing requirements is the third example of widespread protests against government policies this year; thousands of Singaporeans demonstrated in February and May against a government plan to increase the island’s population through immigration.
The government’s latest crackdown on internet freedom sends the wrong message to partners in the region and beyond at a time when Singapore is helping to facilitate ASEAN’s economic integration and raise its international profile. Moreover, it discourages a sustainable innovation-based economy at home by stifling the internet as a forum for citizens to express grievances against government policies.
As Singapore undergoes important demographic and political changes in the coming decades, pursuing a freer internet policy would serve the government’s long-term interests. It would foster a creative economy, provide an outlet for expression by an increasingly affluent and cosmopolitan populace, and prove that the government is meeting demands to become more transparent and responsive.