(New York) – The Singaporean government should withdraw an onerous new licensing requirement for online news sites. The new rules will further discourage independent commentary and reporting on the Internet in Singapore.
On May 28, 2013, the Media Development Authority, which is controlled by the Ministry of Communications and Information and is responsible for regulation of Singapore’s media and publishing industry, announced that all “online news sites” that reach 50,000 unique viewers per month over a two-month period must secure a license to operate. The licensing regime took effect on June 1, and the Media Development Authority released a list of 10 websites that will initially be impacted, including AsiaOne.com, Business Times Singapore, and Yahoo! News Singapore.
“Singapore’s new licensing requirement casts a chill over the city-state’s robust and free-wheeling online communities, and will clearly limit Singaporeans’ access to independent media,” said Cynthia Wong, senior Internet researcher at Human Rights Watch. “Websites will be forced into the role of private censors on behalf of the government.”
The new licensing rules seem intended to impose another check on popular websites more than to reduce any genuine harms, Human Rights Watch said. As a condition of the license, websites must comply within 24 hours with any requests from the Media Development Authority to remove content that the government deems objectionable. Websites are also required to post a S$50,000 (US$40,000) performance bond to ensure compliance. “News site” is defined broadly to include any site containing news or any matter or public interest related to Singapore, in any language – even if content is provided by a third party, as with readers’ comments on a website.
On May 30, several major independent websites in Singapore released a joint media statement in protest, contending that the new rules would “reduce the channels available to Singaporeans to receive news and analysis of the socio-political situation in Singapore.” The statement also said that the new rules would disproportionately harm citizen journalists and non-commercial, volunteer-run blogging platforms, who will not be able to afford the performance bond.
A group of bloggers have launched a campaign using the Twitter hashtag #FreeMyInternet, and on June 6, participants blacked out their websites to oppose the new rules. Bloggers have also organized a public event in Singapore’s Speakers’ Corner in Hong Lim Park on June 8. Online commentators have 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.
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.”
Singapore’s constitution guarantees the right to freedom of expression, with exceptions for broadly worded restrictions in the name of security, public order, morality, and racial and religious harmony. Print and broadcast media are also subject to annual licensing requirements. In November 1997, the Media Development Authority introduced an Internet Code of Practice, which requires Internet service providers to restrict access to prohibited material and would apply to websites subject to the new license. The Code of Practice restricts any content that is “against public interest” or offends “good taste or decency,” including “material that advocates homosexuality or lesbianism.”
The definition of what might be deemed “against public interest” is vague and can be used arbitrarily by the government, leaving the licensing regime and content regulations open to selective enforcement and abuse, Human Rights Watch said.
Lesbian, gay, bisexual, and transgender (LGBT) rights activists in Singapore have also criticized media censorship laws because they create a skewed portrayal of LGBT individuals in local, mainstream media. Given that Singapore still criminalizesmale same-sex relations, instituting a 24-hour takedown requirement for “material that advocates homosexuality or lesbianism” on popular websites will only exacerbate the problem, Human Rights Watch said.
Human Rights Watch said that the licensing regime is inconsistent with international human rights standards on freedom of expression. Article 19 of the Universal Declaration of Human Rights, widely recognized as customary international law, provides that “[e]veryone has the right to freedom of opinion and expression; this right includes freedom to hold opinions without interference and to seek, receive and impart information and ideas through any media and regardless of frontiers.”
In his May 2011 report to the United Nations Human Rights Council, the special rapporteur on the promotion and protection of freedom of opinion and expression, Frank La Rue, wrote that registration and licensing requirements “cannot be justified in the case of the Internet.”
“Singapore is placing its status as a world-class financial center at clear risk by extending its record of draconian media censorship to the digital world,” Wong said.