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Singapore Expands Government Control Over Internet News

BY Jessica McKenzie | Monday, June 3 2013

Yahoo! News Singapore is one of 10 sites that must get an individual license in Singapore

As of June 1st, some online sources for Singapore news need an individual license from the government media regulator, the Media Development Authority (MDA). Online news sites are already subject to the Internet Code of Practice, which includes a description of “Prohibited Material.” However, the new License specifies that news sites must remove prohibited content within 24 hours of notification from the MDA.

The License only applies to sites that report on Singapore news at least once a week and receive visits from 50,000 or more Singapore IP addresses a month for at least two months. It also only applies to sites under the Singapore government's jurisdiction. At the moment, only 10 websites have been singled out.

However, according to the Minister for Communications and Information, Yaacob Ibrahim, another piece of legislation called the Broadcasting Act will be modified next year to cover foreign news sites that cover Singapore news.

The MDA insists that, “As the sites are already subject to these requirements, no change in content standards is expected to result.” Some say that the Singapore government just wants more control over the Internet. Among them is Bryan Tan, a Singapore-based lawyer with a penchant for technology and blogging, who has a problem with the vague language of the new policy.

The MDA's definition for “a 'Singapore news programme' [sic] is 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 in any language.”

The language of the Internet Code of Practice is equally vague: “Prohibited material is material that is objectionable on the grounds of public interest, public morality, public order, public security, national harmony, or is otherwise prohibited by applicable Singapore laws.”

Kinds of content that could fall under that very wide umbrella include material that “advocates homosexuality or lesbianism,” or “glorifies, incites or endorses ethnic, racial or religious hatred, strife or intolerance” or “depicts nudity or genitalia in a manner calculated to titillate.”

Tan rightly worries about the reach of the policy. “For example, if someone doesn't operate a site but has a Facebook page on which he posts news and this is shared via other Facebook users. How will the number of readers be determined and who exactly is liable.”

Another blogger, Alex Au, said the policy “would have a chilling effect on the online media.”

Singapore has notoriously poor freedom of the press. In 2013 Reporters Without Borders ranked it 149th on the World Press Freedom Index – a drop from their 2012 ranking of 135. With this new policy it seems like the government is angling for another significant drop next year.

Personal Democracy Media is grateful to the Omidyar Network for its generous support of techPresident's WeGov section.