Behind Singapore's Internet Crackdown

There is probably more behind the Singapore government's Tuesday crackdown on the Internet than the circumspect slings and arrows from a handful of cautious amateur news sites that have been around for years.

The Singapore Media Development Authority issued a statement describing the new regulations in language that seemed Orwellian even for the island republic, which maintains some of the strictest press restrictions on the planet. The MDA said the regulations are only designed to place the websites "on a more consistent regulatory framework with traditional news platforms which are already individually licensed."

The policy could be extended to foreign news sites covering Singapore as well, the MDA said. That would mean newspapers that carry news on Singapore on their websites but not in the papers delivered on the island would be subject.

Singapore has been reluctant to limit Internet access because of the island republic's determination to present itself as a communication center to the world despite its stringent censorship of the conventional news media. But sources in Singapore say the government's patience was tried by reporting 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.

The articles stirred criticism of the government from Singaporeans, as did stories about a cartoonist named Leslie Chew, who was arrested in April on charges of sedition after posting cartoons critical of the government's racial policies on his Facebook page. Chew was held in jail for a weekend, released on S$10,000 bail, and had his computer confiscated. He is awaiting trial.

In general, Singaporeans have been growing more critical of their government, and showed it last January with a shock People's Action Party defeat in Singapore's Punggol East by-election, won by the opposition Workers Party candidate Lee Li Lian with 54.5 percent of the vote, that appeared to be a watershed in the island republic's politics.

Then, in February, more than 3,000 Singaporeans gathered in a park to protest a Population White Paper that had been passed in Parliament recommending huge numbers of foreign immigrants to the island. It was one of the largest crowds ever to turn up without a permit.

The new regulations require any site that gets 50,000 unique visitors a month to put up S$50,000 bond if it reports more than one article a week on Singapore-related news over a period of two months.

"This is an attempt to cripple independent online reporting," said Remy Choo, a co-founder of The Online Citizen, a six-year-old website that has 150,000 to 200,000 unique visitors a month. "It's extremely draconian. It will cripple any volunteer website." The regulations, Choo said, could be used against any website the government deems critical, even if it reports on such issues as sports. In a statement carried on its website, The Online Citizen said it may have to shut down.

Websites such as The Online Citizen and TR Emeritus, among others, have been extremely cautious about reporting on politics and government in the island republic, although a handful have occasionally stuck their fingers in the government's eye.

"Going technically by the two conditions stipulated, a rough estimate would be about 50 or so blogs will be affected," said a spokesman for TR Emeritus by email. "We do not have the exact figure but it is safe to assume a hundred, if not more, have been reporting on the government."

In a press release carried on its website, TR Emeritus said that "While the S$50,000 performance bond is a drop in the ocean for a mainstream news outlet with an online presence, it would potentially be beyond the means of volunteer run and personal blogging platforms like ours. Hence, MDA's claim that the licensing regime is intended to equalize the playing field between online and offline news is incorrect: the regulations will disproportionately affect us."

Asked what the regulations say about Singapore's position in the world of modern communications, the spokesman said, "This question is best answered by referring to Singapore's media ranking in the world."

Reporters Without Borders ranks Singapore 149th of 179 countries, or did before the Internet crackdown. The Washington, DC-based Freedom House ranks it lower, at 153rd globally. It will now probably fall further down the list. Where the media aren't restricted they face constant defamation suits and contempt of court charges which the government has won unanimously.

"Singapore's plan to impose licensing fees on news websites will further stifle the press in the city-state's already claustrophobic media atmosphere," the Committee to Protect Journalists said in a prepared statement.

"These licensing fees shut another door to public discussion," said Bob Dietz, CPJ's Asia program coordinator. "The regulations allow the government to exert the same pressure on digital media that it already does over traditional print and broadcast media."

At least 10 websites currently fall under the MDA's guidelines, including Asia One, Business Times, Channel NewsAsia, 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." That would appear to apply to Yahoo News' reports on Leslie Chew's comic strips.

It probably also would apply to a Yahoo News article today calling attention to a bunch of satirical tweets, including these:

  • If you light more than 50 joss sticks a month, you are required to apply for an Incense License

  • Roads that flood more than once in 50 years are required to apply for a Freak Flood License

  • Ministers who touch more than 500 bananas are required to apply for a Touch My Banana License