Today, MDA’s new requirement for news websites to be licensed takes effect. Today, we all woke up and found that pretty much everything online has stayed about the same. In particular, Yahoo News Singapore, one of the sites specifically named as qualifying under the new licensing requirements, is still around. Good, the sky has not crashed down on Singapore.
The past week, netizens have protested strongly against MDA’s updated licensing framework. The concern centered primarily on censorship and limitation of free speech online. MDA has come out to clarify what qualifies as “reporting on Singapore news and current affairs”. MDA said:
The licensing framework only applies to sites that focus on reporting Singapore news and are notified by MDA that they meet the licensing criteria. An individual publishing views on current affairs and trends on his/her personal website or blog does not amount to news reporting.
Thank you very much, I’m sure that will clear some uncertainty on where bloggers stand. Not.
Let’s just forget for the moment that the above still remains ambiguous and subjective. Instead, let’s see what MDA themselves originally said in elaborating on “Singapore news and current affairs”:
A “Singapore news programme” is any programme (whether or not the programme is presenter-based and whether or not the programme is provided by a third party) containing any news, intelligence, report of occurrence, or any matter of public interest, about any social, economic, political, cultural, artistic, sporting, scientific or any other aspect of Singapore in any language (whether paid or free and whether at regular interval or otherwise) but does not include any programme produced by or on behalf of the Government.
I can’t help but feel that MDA has deliberately tried to make very open-ended their requirements, so that they can have plenty of leeway in interpretation, and in future, come back to hit us and say, “look, we already said this a long time ago”. Not very different from them saying now that, actually, there are already “prevailing requirements within the Class Licence and Internet Code of Practice”, and hence, there is no change in content standards.
Yes, they have given some reassurance now, after much protests from the online community, that they are not going after individuals publishing on their own websites or blogs. But what is there to prevent MDA from reverting to the broader scope of their licensing framework in future?
MDA’s move is definitely unsettling. On the one hand, we thought the Singapore government has been quite open and receptive in accommodating with media on the Internet. It seems we may be wrong. The government has revealed their intention to amend the Broadcasting Act to include overseas-based news websites targeting the Singapore market, thus giving them the power to apply the licensing framework to those sites.
It seems there’s now an about turn to the “light touch” approach to the government’s regulation of the Internet. Let’s not forget that MDA already has a technical framework in place to ban access to objectionable websites. In China, it’s called the Great China Firewall. What will our Internet become in a couple of years?