Singapore’s Media Development Agency has shut down its first Internet site, 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.
The action was taken under media guidelines published in May that required 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 registration and banning puts an end to 17 years of so-called “light touch” regulation put in place by the Media Development authority to foster the country’s image of high-tech communications to lure western technology and communications companies.
The Breakfast Network didn’t appear to be doing anything sinister beyond not bothering to register – which may have been more out of not being prepared than any defiance. Henson said in a parting posting that she had only started the website to give journalism students at her college the opportunity to write and publish under professional guidelines and standards.
“Singapore’s vibrant ecosystem of socio-political blogs was spared the discretionary licensing regime that has blocked the development of alternative print and broadcast media, wrote blogger and media critic Cherian George. “Blogs could be punished if what they published broke the law – but they were never expected to persuade regulators that they deserved the right to publish before they were allowed to do so. Until today.”
“I got the ball rolling sometime in August,” Henson said in a farewell note. “I incorporated a company and started to work on the legal and business end of things while everyone, except for one paid full-timer and a couple of interns, contributed articles pro bono. I had pro bono help from experts. I hired a team to do a new, improved website. So it was a bit of a surprise to get an email from the Media Development Authority about three weeks back about having to register the site. I hadn’t even begun to pull together a business plan to show the network contributors.”
The government has never interfered with the website’s operation or curbed content, Henson wrote. Websites have been anticipating government action since the MDA’s guidelines were published in May. More prominent websites including The Online Citizen and TR Emeritus have not registered with the authority. Kumuran Pillai, editor of the newly-fledged news site The Independent, told Asia Sentinel his publication had registered.
“There’s no fallout now that I know of” so far from the shutdown of the Breakfast Network, Pillai said. “We have registered.” The site was required to make a statutory declaration that it hadn’t received any foreign funding. Yahoo, which some observers believe was the initial target of the government’s move to license websites, comes under a different licensing regime. The operators of more than 160 Singaporean websites rallied after the measure was passed, calling for concerned citizens to assemble at Hong Lim Park, the site of the city’s Speaker’s Corner, to protest the new requirements, with the bloggers closing down their sites for 24 hours to protest the implementation of the new laws. The bloggers launched a campaign using the Twitter hashtag #FreeMyInternet to spread the word about the campaign.
Online commentators expressed concern over the breadth of the definition of “online news sites,” warning that it could sweep in blogs that discuss a wide range of issues, and websites that enable users to discuss online content. The regulations, promulgated at the behest of Communications and Information Minister Yaacob Ibrahim, have been condemned internationally by Human Rights Watch, the Committee to Protect Journalists and Reporters Without Borders, saying the rules would further discourage independent commentary and reporting. Yaacob, however, later said the government intended to keep its light hand on the Internet.
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 new 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 father, Lee Kuan Yew. All have reacted by shying away from critical reporting on the country.
According to the Human Rights Watch report: “In response to criticism, the Media Development Authority clarified on its Facebook page on May 31 that, “An individual publishing views on current affairs and trends on his/her personal website or blog does not amount to news reporting.’ However, in a separate statement, the Authority undermined this claim by asserting that, “If they [blogs] take on the nature of news sites, we will take a closer look and evaluate them accordingly.” The Media Development Authority also asserted that the framework is “not an attempt to influence the editorial slant of news sites” and that it will only step in “when complaints are raised to [their] attention, and [they] assess that the content is in breach of the content guidelines and merits action by the website owner.”