Singapore Brings Hammer Down on 'Net Critics

Nearly two years after Singapore’s Media Development Agency pushed through regulations putting a tight leash on Internet journalism, the authority has shut down its first news site, called The Real Singapore.

For good measure, the government charged the site’s editors, Singaporean Yang Kaiheng and his Australian girlfriend Ai Takagi, with seven counts of sedition and other charges for allegedly printing racially inflammatory and inaccurate stories. Local Singaporeans, however, told Asia Sentinel that the stories were hardly inflammatory enough to warrant the charges and potential fines up to S$200,000 [US$150,330] and speculated that the authorities were setting out to make an example of the website in the light of other incidents including a 16-year-old who insulted the memory of Lee Kuan Yew, the country’s founder, who died on March 22, and a blogger who insulted Prime Minister Lee Hsien Loong’s integrity. The Real Singapore, the sources say, has become the platform for a flock of good-quality bloggers who aren’t afraid to be critical of the government.

"Singapore's licensing system for online news services was designed from the start for this type of censorship and harassment," said Shawn Crispin, CPJ's senior Southeast Asia representative. "We call on the Media Development Authority to repeal its suspension order of The Real Singapore, drop all of the charges against its editors, and allow the website to continue its journalistic work free of threats or reprisal."

The Real Singapore is the first news website to be shut down under Singapore's licensing regulations, introduced in 2013, according to CPJ research although the Media Development Authority has gone after other non-news sites. Last year it shut an innocuous fledgling called the Breakfast Network that was run by Bertha Henson, a former journalist with Singapore Press Holdings who now is a journalist in residence at a local college while acting as a media consultant.

Certainly, the fading from the scene and finally the death of the patriarch hasn’t led to any particular letup on civil liberties for the island republic’s 5.3 million citizens. The most recent is its draconian action against a 16-year-old youth named Amos Yee, who went on trial today, May 7, for releasing a video of himself celebrating the fact that Lee was finally dead. Authorities arrested the youth almost immediately. He has been in Changi Prison for a week, charged with allegedly attacking Christianity with the deliberate intention of wounding the religious feelings of Christians, and for purportedly transmitting electronically an image showing obscene figures – his upraised middle finger in the video.

Phil Robertson, the Bangkok –based Deputy Director of the Asia Division of Human Rights Watch, assailed the charges, saying “Singapore excels at constructing excuses to justify its gagging exercises but the charges against Yee are a stretch even by Singapore's usual practice. Nothing Amos Yee said about religion in his famous video about Lee Kuan Yew justifies these criminal charges against him, and given what circulates on the internet these days, charging Yee with transmitting an obscene representation is laughably arbitrary and oh so very Singapore.”

The reality, Robertson said, is that the trial is about punishing a dissident who “dared besmirch the image of the recently passed leader, and intimidating anyone else who might think of doing the same in the future. Singapore's charges against Yee run contrary to international human rights standards and are a dangerous affront to freedom of expression.”

He called on the government to drop the charges and apologize to the youth, which almost certainly isn’t going to happen. Singapore doesn’t do that. In 2014, it took on a young blogger named Roy Ngerng – the first against a blogger – for questioning the disposition funds from the Central Provident Fund, Singapore’s retirement system. Ngerng was found guilty of defaming Prime Minister Lee Hsien Loong and fined.

These actions have effectively ended almost two decades during which the government determinedly left Internet journalism alone in an effort to assure international business and commerce that it could guarantee the free flow of information.

Singapore's mainstream media have long been cowed into submission by the government through libel lawsuits, contempt of court cases and outright intimidation. Although the Media Development Authority said the 2013 law was only meant to bring Internet sites into compliance with existing press regulations, Singapore's tame courts have been used to bludgeon the press into not reporting at all on the country. The Internet sites can be expected to face the same fate. Many international news outlets including the International Herald Tribune, the Financial Times, the Wall Street Journal, Time Magazine, the now-defunct Far Eastern Economic Review and AsiaWeek, Time Magazine and others have been sued successfully by the family of Prime Minister Lee Hsien Loong and his late father. All have reacted by shying away from critical reporting on the country.

The 2013 media guidelines require all Internet sites to register with the government if they have 50,000 unique visitors a month. They must put up S$50,000 bond if they report more than one article a week on Singapore-related news over a period of two months. If the government objects to an article, it must be taken down within 24 hours.

The Media Development Authority revoked The Real Singapore’s operating license for publishing content it said undermined "the public interest, public order, and national harmony." The site’s editors immediately complied with an order to shut its online and social media platforms. The website has since cleared of content and its Twitter and Facebook accounts have been deleted.

It was not immediately clear if the site's editors intended to challenge the shutdown order with the Communications and Information Ministry, according to the Committee to Protect Journalists, the only means of appeal allowed under Singaporean law.

Yang and Takagi were told to provide information about the website's operations and finances to authorities by May 11. In addition to the fines, they face a maximum three years in prison for failure to comply with that request, the CPJ said. The two were originally charged in April in connection with articles that authorities said stoked hostility between ethnic groups.

One article alleged a Philippine family complained that drums were played too loudly during a Hindu ritual procession on February 3, which provoked an incident between revelers and police that, according to the article, resulted in three arrests. The two were charged on April 14 and released on bail of S$20,000 each. The next court date is scheduled for May 18, reports said.

“Independent bloggers campaigning for online freedoms and against the licensing system have expressed concern that the closure of The Real Singapore will engender more self-censorship among citizen journalists, particularly when linking to articles about class or race, CPJ said.