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.”