Outcry over MDA’s ruling not just about censorship

Commentary: Outcry over MDA’s ruling not just about censorship

The official media watchdog has been under fire, with online critics claiming that a new licensing rule will stifle internet freedom, but are they firing the right questions? (Photo: Payless Images / Shutterstock.com)

When the Media Development Authority (MDA) announced a new licensing scheme on Wednesday to regulate news websites with high online traffic, there was the expected backlash from internet users and socio-political bloggers and writers.

On MDA’s Facebook page, there were more than 130 mostly critical comments with users such as “Jun Spas” proclaiming it as the “single most backward piece of policy ever” and that it’s “a dark day for Singapore’s media freedom”.

There were cries from opposition parties pointing out that the new rules are “regressive”.

The MDA has been clarifying the new website licensing rules on different channels since then, in response to queries from media, and on its Facebook page.

Non-profit website The Online Citizen (TOC), which carries articles by writers on political and social issues in Singapore, questioned why it was not included in the list of websites to be licensed. It even posted its traffic numbers to show it received 171,601 unique visitors from 26 April to 26 May 2013.

The statistics show that it falls well within MDA’s guidelines of being licensed with more than 50,000 unique visitors.

Bearing in mind the yearly payment of S$50,000 for the licence, the site said it would have to “reassess the viability of continuing the website in light of the significant financial and legal liability the new rules impose” if it were ever earmarked.

CRITICISMS JUSTIFIED

The criticisms are mostly justified.

That the scheme was introduced swiftly with no public consultation or Parliamentary debate on the issue is indeed incredulous.

Because of MDA’s Class Licence’s definition of a “news report” or “newspaper”, any website – whether it carries current affairs, entertainment news, fashion news, food blogs and the like – will fall under this new ruling.

Every licensee is beholden to rules of conduct by which it has to abide. These rules are grouped under the Internet Code of Practice (ICOP), and its powers are far-reaching beyond imagination.

In it, MDA’s description of what “prohibited content” is vague at best.

It has the right to clamp down on anything that is “objectionable on the grounds of public interest, public morality, public order, public security, national harmony, or is otherwise prohibited by applicable Singapore laws”.

That can apply to practically any sort of content, if you think about it.

In news reports, the MDA clarified that it would continue its “light-touch approach” to regulation, and it would focus on objectionable material that undermines religious and racial harmony.

But if you haven’t noticed by now, internet users are a suspicious lot.

ORIGINS OF THE LICENSING SCHEME

Yes, everyone is jumping on the critical bandwagon right now, but before we continue to cry foul, remember that the Internet Code of Practice was introduced in 1996 (and amended in 1997) and Singapore was a very different country back then.

It was in the midst of an Asian financial crisis in 1997, the media was very tightly controlled with hardly any widespread critique of the Government, and the opposition lost the Cheng San ward at the general election. After the election, 11 defamation suits were filed against then opposition leader JB Jeyaretnam.

The internet was in its infancy and the Government had its eye on the website Sintercom.

A platform for discussing Singapore issues, it was formed in 1994 and was one of the early platforms by which the public was able to voice their opinions.

In 2001, the website was subjected to the new licensing laws and had to abide by the code of practice, but after some engagements with the authorities, its founder Tan Chong Kee decided to shut the site down because he felt that honest, open discussion about Singapore issues was not possible.

But that was 12 years ago and times have changed.

We live in a world now where not using the internet is just unimaginable.

Instead of the usual outcry and outrage about censorship, perhaps it may be better to focus specifically on the MDA’s Class Licence definition and its code of practice, and ask why it has not been updated for 16 years?

IS THE CENSORSHIP SO BAD?

Let us also not forget that there is still a smidgen of merit to MDA’s new licensing scheme, whether we like to admit it or not.

Let’s play devil’s advocate and look at the consequences of not having censorship laws. (Maintenance of Religious Harmony Act, Sedition Act, Penal Code, section 298A)

  • Would you want to see racial slurs online insulting Indians in Singapore or a website created specifically to hurl insults at Buddhists?
  • Or even your child receiving a Facebook invite to publicly shame a homosexual man at Hong Lim Park?
  • Would the police have been able to issue an official stern warning against Amy Cheong, the former assistant director of membership at the National Trades Union Congress (NTUC), who was sacked for making racist remarks online?
    Her act disparaged Malays for what she perceived to be their low-cost, void-deck weddings and she mocked their high divorce rates.

If it has been left unchecked, would it have opened doors to more racist remarks by others because they figured they could make comments without consequence?

SINGAPORE CENSORSHIP TODAY

Putting aside the argument that the MDA may clamp down on everyone’s comments, what is the reality of censorship in Singapore?

  • Pornography can be accessed by anyone online despite the symbolic banning of 100 or so pornography websites – evidence of MDA’s “light touch” approach?

The authority has stated that it will not prosecute anyone for viewing such material. It is only concerned with those that distribute the material.

  • During the 2011 general election, the mainstream media gave arguably fair coverage to the opposition, something that could not have happened a decade ago.

In a freely distributed newspaper, there was an article on the MDA’s latest licence scheme, with readers and opposition parties voicing their concerns and dissent. Unthinkable 10 years ago.

  • Coverage of homosexuality issues in the mainstream media is also not as taboo as before.

In a recent article in The Straits Times dated 23 May, theatre director Ivan Heng was declared as “openly gay”, and mischief maker Samantha Lo who spray-painted public roads mentioned that she is gay, and her comment was left in the interview.

These would likely have not been published 10 years ago.

SMALL-BUDGET WEBSITES

The major issue with MDA’s licensing scheme is with low-budget websites that have more than 50,000 unique viewers, that they may not be able to afford the S$50,000 yearly licence fee.

What they can then likely do is set up a Facebook page, assuming that they are presenting alternative views on government policies with no intention to profiteer from it.

For those who want to monetise their venture, it will be a different matter. There is no alternative but to shut down or pay up the licensing fee through more advertising, donations, kickstarter appeals or by charging users a fee for accessing their content, which is indeed a bummer.

The MDA licensing scheme is not problem-free, but witnessing the waves of criticism and outcry that is happening, and reading comments comparing Singapore to North Korea and China, one cannot help but think there is a need to get away from the mob mentality and for these armchair warriors to step away just a bit for a little perspective.

by Gregory Leow.   inSing.com – 1 June 2013 ->  link  : Commentary: Outcry over MDA’s ruling not just about censorship

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