Singapore’s blogging community is rebelling against a stringent new law that requires online news sites to put up a performance bond of US $40,000 and to submit to government censorship, calling for the general public and bloggers to rally next Saturday against the measure.
Last Tuesday, the Singapore Media Development Authority issued the new regulations, which it said were designed to place the websites “on a more consistent regulatory framework with traditional news platforms which are already individually licensed.”
The protest group, calling itself “Free My Internet,” is asking Singaporeans to rally in Hong Lim Park, the site of Singapore’s speaker’s corner, where a May 1 protest drew 3,000 participants protesting the government’s plans to let in vast numbers of new immigrants. It was said to be the biggest protest crowd in Singapore in modern times.
“We encourage all Singaporeans who are concerned about our future and our ability to participate in everyday online activities and discussions, and to seek out alternative news and analysis, to take a strong stand against the licensing regime which can impede on your independence,” the organizers said.
“We urge Singaporeans to turn up to send a clear message to our elected representatives to trust the Singaporeans who elected them.”
The message was signed by 35 bloggers, who asked all Singapore bloggers to go black for 24 hours from midnight June 6.
“You can choose to create your own blackout notice, or use www.freemyinternet.com we have created for your convenience,” the group said. “When you reopen your blog, write your account of the protest, about the new regulations and censorship, or anything related to media freedom in Singapore. Share your thoughts. Share your hope that the light that free speech provides will not go out on us.”
The Speaker’s Corner, modeled after London’s free speech site of the same name, is hardly free. Demonstrations are allowed only by Singapore citizens and attended by Singapore citizens. Banners, films, flags, photographs, placards, posters, signs, writing or other visible representations or paraphernalia containing violent, lewd or obscene material must not be displayed or exhibited, the government says.
Events must not deal with any matter that relates directly or indirectly to any religious belief or to religion generally, or which may cause feelings of enmity, hatred, ill-will or hostility between different racial or religious groups.
Events adhering to the regulations are not immune from other existing laws, such as those relating to defamation and sedition, which in Singapore can be extremely broad, especially when the Lee governing family is mentioned.
Asia Sentinel’s attempts to reach the Media Development Authority by telephone and email went unanswered last week.
The Singapore-based Channel News Asia, however, quoted the agency in an article on May 29 as saying the new licensing framework “is not intended to clamp down on internet freedom,” adding that the regulations will only apply to news sites that meet the content and reach criteria.
But while the government was characterizing the new regulations as merely bringing the internet into line with print publication restrictions, the protesters said, they apply to all content on the news sites including readers’ comments. In the recent past, the Singapore government has gone after news sites for not erasing what are deemed to be offending comments fast enough, threatening lawsuits.
Any blog that reaches more than 50,000 unique visitors in a month and prints a single article of Singapore news within two weeks is liable to come under the regulation and to be forced to withdraw the story within 24 hours or be faced with forfeiting the bond although the bigger problem, for most bloggers, is coming up with the money in the first place.
Although bloggers have been a circumspect presence in Singapore for more than a decade, the government apparently grew irritated by reporting particularly by Yahoo News, the giant news aggregator that claims nearly 700 million Internet readers across the planet, for carrying stories on the arrest and deportations of striking Chinese bus drivers last December and the aftermath.
Among sites named as currently falling under the MDA’s guidelines, including Asia One, Business Times, Channel News Asia, Omy, Stomp, Straits Times, TNP, Today Online, Zaobao, and Yahoo, Channel News Asia reported.
“The License also makes it clear that online news sites are expected to comply within 24 hours to the MDA’s directions to remove content that is found to be in breach of content standards,” the authority said on its website.
Presumably, that would mean Yahoo must remove the offending articles about the striking bus drivers, Leslie Chew and others within 24 hours of being notified by the authority. In particular, the MDA said the websites must take down content that “is prejudicial to racial harmony.”