Singapore Cracks down on Online Journalism

The Committee to Protect Journalists is protesting an order by the Singapore government to force a journalistic website, The Online Citizen, to register as a political organization, in a move apparently designed to limit political commentary.

"Discussing politics does not make a publication a political organization," said Bob Dietz, the organization's Asia program coordinator. "Forcing The Online Citizen to register as a political association distorts its role and threatens its ability to cover politics. Prime Minister Lee Hsien Loong is clearly trying to tighten control of media outlets before calling elections."

The Online Citizen has been in business since 2006, covering political issues with a smattering of other news. Attempts by Asia Sentinel to contact the staff have been unsuccessful. There are several other Internet news organizations in Singapore, including the Temasek Review, which have so far escaped the same kind of registration process used against The Online Citizen. Temasek Review also did not respond to email messages asking for comment.

On January 10, the Registry of Political Donations, a branch of the prime minister's office, wrote to The Online Citizen ordering it to register as a political association, giving the website 14 days to reveal the identity of its staff. The registry denied the Citizen's written appeal last week "Registered groups are forbidden from receiving funding from overseas, and anonymous donations are capped at S$5,000, according to news reports cited by the CPJ.

["You know they're worried when they go after The Online Citizen, which is just a bunch of mild-mannered, upstanding students," said one Singapore source.

It was unclear from reading the website what The Online Citizen would do next, although it organized a party for last Saturday at which the acting editor and his band played and people brought cupcakes, chocolate and banana muffins and the group played games.

The story on the website said the party "was simply a brave stand by TOC for its supporters: a cheerful statement for the right to speak (responsibly) and a celebration against fear." They also auctioned off a copy of Lee Kuan Yew's latest book, Hard Choices, for S$310. The book was signed by the TOC editors. The group raised $3800 in donations.

"Readers now are welcomed to join to do 'simple things for the disadvantaged,'" the website said.

"CPJ research shows that Lee Hsien Loong's People's Action Party instigated registrations 10 years ago, prior to the November 2001 elections, to prevent online speech from becoming an independent alternative to the regular media, which is largely government-owned and heavily controlled," Deitz wrote. "Lee has not announced the timing of the next elections, which are due to take place before February 2012, according to local news reports."

Singapore's mainstream press is tightly controlled by the government. The press is governed by the draconian Newspaper and Printing Presses Act of 1972, which says that "No person shall print or publish or assist in the printing or publishing of any newspaper in Singapore unless the chief editor or the proprietor of the newspaper has previously obtained a permit granted by the Minister authorising the publication thereof, which permit the Minister may in his discretion grant, refuse or revoke, or grant subject to conditions to be endorsed thereon."

As an indication of the ties between the directors of Singapore Press Holdings, the republic's dominant media group, and the Singapore Government. The executive chairman of the media group from 1982 to 1988 was S R Nathan, the director of the government's Security and Intelligence Division. Likewise, the first president of SPH was Tjong Yik Min, the former head of Singapore's Internal Security Department. Other officials in the newsroom are widely believed to be members of the government's security units.

The country's relationship with the foreign press is famously prickly. Any reporting that doesn't toe the government line can and often does result in libel suits that the government and the family of Lee Kuan Yew, the founder of the republic and currently minister mentor, have won unanimously. Among those successfully sued are the Asian Wall Street Journal, Time Magazine, The Economist, The Financial Times, the now-defunct Far Eastern Economic Review and AsiaWeek and others.

The government says it requires political registration, known as gazetting, to limit foreign involvement in politics, and that the Citizen is a participant, not an observer. Singapore officials said in response to a magazine article on the registration that the website was gazetted because it "organized polls on political issues and a forum for politicians, and mounted online and offline campaigns to change legislation and government policies."

With reporting from the Committee to Protect Journalists