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The Singapore “Media Destruction Authority” Smothers Homegrown News Site

BY Jessica McKenzie | Monday, January 6 2014

kitchen closed

When techPresident covered Singapore's new media regulations last June, only 10 websites had been singled out by the Media Development Authority (MDA). All were big corporate news sites. Fast forward six months to the death-by-paperwork demise of start up citizen news site Breakfast Network, which closed “company” doors on December 16. The MDA's effective smothering of the Breakfast Network team has led one blogger to suggest they change their name to the Media Destruction Authority.

The Breakfast Network was the brainchild of journalist Bertha Henson, a longtime Singaporean journalist and a former editor at The Straits Times. Although it began in February 2013 as a media commentary and criticism blog, it soon expanded to include original citizen journalism.

People liked what they saw, and traffic increased, and people “wanted more and more,” in Henson's own words. She decided to create a legal entity that could fund and run the site, so she incorporated a company, Breakfast Network Pte Ltd (BNPL).

Then came the MDA's demand that they register the site, and the torrential onslaught of “onerous” paperwork to be completed, and a tight, nearly impossible to meet deadline, before Henson even had a business plan ready to show network contributors. For a scrappy new website, the demands proved far too difficult to meet.

In a post, originally on the Breakfast Network and now posted to Yahoo Singapore, Henson mulls things over, speculating about what might have led the MDA to target her site:

Of course, we wondered why we were singled out. . . There was a bout of self-pity. Why us? We are not an advocacy site; we have no ideological underpinnings. We are just people who are interested in news developments and ask, we hope, thoughtful questions on behalf of the citizenry. We try to get as close as possible to our ideal of a functioning, independent newsroom that upholds journalistic ethics and professionalism.

Daniel Reimold, a former Fulbright researcher and visiting journalism professor in Singapore, wrote about the “death and dismemberment” of Breakfast Network for Poynter.org. He included some of his own insights into the country from his time working there.

In respect to the latter, a journalism educator here once described the reporting roadblocks to me as a “world of shadows.” It is part of what many Singaporean student and professional journalists refer to loosely as legal, political and economic forces in the country with the authority to control or punish individuals who criticize the powers-that-be, upend the status quo or cause controversies of any kind.

Some of these shadows are real and others undoubtedly imagined. But either way, they lead to what Singaporeans call OB (out-of-bounds) markers – limits on how much to rant, how far to dig, how boldly to challenge, how deeply to report.

In spite of those hazy boundaries, there has always been a “silver lining,” for media researcher and critic Cherian George.

No longer.

As George explains on his blog:

For all the thunderclouds and occasional lightning strikes that bloggers faced in Singapore, we at least used to be able to point to one, clear silver lining: Not one political site had been banned in 17 years of “light touch” internet regulation.

Today, 10 December 2013, that silver lining is officially history.

Through the government’s clumsy handling of one site that didn’t even pose a serious threat, Singapore has now stumbled into the company of authoritarian regimes that are prepared to outlaw politically inconvenient blogs. Although it could prove to be an unintended anomaly, the Breakfast Network’s death by red tape is nonetheless a landmark event in the brief history of online regulation.

The Breakfast Network's “death by red tape” is a serious red flag for Internet freedom in Singapore.

The Facebook page is still running, although Henson has said she is entirely uninvolved, and it is now in the hands of the citizen volunteers who used to write for the website.

Personal Democracy Media is grateful to the Omidyar Network and the UN Foundation for their generous support of techPresident's WeGov section.

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