Letter to MDA: Feedback on New Licensing Framework for Online News Sites

I had written the email below to the Media Development Authority (MDA) in response to the introduction of the new licensing framework for online news sites. I will share the response from the MDA on this blog, in the event that the MDA does reply. 

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To: Who It May Concern,

I refer to the press release by the Media Development Authority (MDA) [1], “Online news sites to be placed on a more consistent licensing framework as traditional news platforms”.

I am writing in as a concerned citizen.

I note that in the Censorship Review Committee 2010 Report [2], the committee had stated that, “At the present time, almost all censorship decisions are fronted by the MDA. It is clear that the MDA does not have the domain expertise to make certain decisions, particularly those involving national security, and that it is acting in such situations on the advice or instruction of another agency. This reality is not spelt out. When the MDA officers are not in a position to adequately justify a decision to affected parties, and yet have to appear to be accountable for the decision, a toll is inevitably taken on their credibility. This in turn reduces the prospects for effective co-regulation and the building of trust.”

The report also goes on to further say that, “Censorship is a restriction on personal freedoms, imposed by the government but reflecting the will of a substantial majority of the people. To be accepted as valid, it must be seen to fairly reflect widely-held sentiments.

According to the survey commissioned as part of the review committee [3], it was found that the majority of Singaporeans – or 54% of respondents aged 15 and above had thought that the censorship classification was “just right” (this would be a majority of 43% when including “respondents who were unable to give a comment”) .

Clearly, the “widely-held sentiments” among Singaporeans are that the current regulatory environment for the Internet is suitably measured, which is why it thus perplexes me, as well as many Singaporeans, as to why the MDA went against “the will of a substantial majority of the people” by imposing a new licensing requirement on “online new sites”. Has the MDA been guided to impose this new licensing requirement “on the advice or instruction of another agency” as well? Since MDA “does not have the domain expertise to make certain decisions”, I am thus highly uncomfortable that the MDA had seemingly made a unilateral decision to impose new license requirements.

As a concerned citizen, I would like to demand that the MDA clarify on the following information:

1.     I would like to understand how the MDA had developed the following seemingly arbitrary figures:

a.     Why is the amount for the performance bond pegged at $50,000? How was this calculation done? Also, is this calculation tiered to the profit-making ability of the news platform, or lack thereof?

b.     How was the decision to license online news sites which “report an average of at least one article per week on Singapore’s news and current affairs over a period of two months” decided upon?

c.      How was the decision to license online news sites that “are visited by at least 50,000 unique IP addressesfrom Singapore each month over a period of two months” decided upon?

d.     The Online Citizen (TOC) had noted in their statement [4] that, “Based on publicly available data of visitorship statistics for TOC and the regularity of our posts on Singapore news and current affairs, it would appear that the licensing regime could apply to TOC.” I would like to understand how the MDA assess the criteria of TOC to this new licensing requirement and since, as ZDNet [5] had noted, that “no other online news sites beyond the 10 listed are found to have met the qualifying criteria of reach and content,” whether the MDA would plan to include the TOC under the licensing framework at some point in time. If indeed the MDA plans to do so, I would like to understand how MDA will decide when the timing will be deemed suitable and how the assessment would then have changed from now.

2.     Most importantly, what public consultation exercise had the MDA conducted which evidenced a necessity for this new licensing requirement? According to the review committee’s report, “Quantitative and qualitative surveys have been undertaken by the regulator to guide its decisions on policy reviews and content guidelines. In the spirit of engaging the community further and promoting greater transparency, the regulator should make these surveys available to the public for a better understanding of community values.” If indeed one was done, I would like the MDA to publish these surveys immediately so that Singaporeans would be able to review them. If not, the honourable thing that MDA should do would be to retract this new licensing requirement and follow the due process. As MDA has been recognized as “not hav(ing) the domain expertise”, I am highly uncomfortable that a new licensing requirement had been introduced without first, acknowledging the “widely-held sentiments” among Singaporeans, and second, without any consultation to appear to have been done.

3.     Finally, I fail to understand how the “new Licence provides greater clarity on prevailing requirements within the Class Licence and Internet Code of Practice”. The introduction of this new licensing requirement came suddenly, even though the government should supposedly be taking “light-touch policy”. There is also no clarity in how the arbitrary figures were developed and how the new licensing requirement came about.

The Censorship Review Committee 2010 had said that, “Consumers will ultimately dictate the correctness of our regulatory framework. If they find classification too strict, they will migrate away from regulated media towards unregulated downloads, to the detriment of the local media industry and resulting in the loss of a common space of shared media experiences. One consequence of an unlimited online menu is that many more Singaporeans may eventually seek their news and entertainment from global sources, and this will eventually be felt in the shaping of community values through a smorgasbord of global influences rather than through local media.”

It is in the interest of the MDA to ensure that consumers like me have readily available access to news sources which provide ample and diverse perspectives for my own analysis and understanding. TOC had shared that, “In the event that the new licensing rules are extended to TOC, we will have to reassess the viability of continuing the website in light of the significant financial and legal liability the new rules impose.” This will lead to a “detriment of the local media industry and resulting in the loss of a common space of shared media experiences” and “many more Singaporeans may eventually seek their news and entertainment from global sources”.

And unless the aim of the MDA is to reduce the capability and availability of these online news sites, such as the TOC, and to prevent Singaporeans’ access to such alternative news information, I would like to understand how the MDA perceives online news sites, such as TOC and other “alternative news websites”. Do they have a space to co-exist in the political and social sphere in Singapore?

The review committee’s report had also indicated that, “The Internet revolution makes community involvement in media content regulation even more pertinent and urgent. The community has to share the responsibility with the government and the industry.” Also the report stated that, “Community engagement is essentially about bringing the views of citizens to bear on the development of public services. In this sense, it is about citizen empowerment. Community engagement is especially relevant in the area of media content regulation since one of the key principles underpinning the content regulatory framework is the need to uphold community values.”

The report affirmed that, “Simply explained, engagement means that “government must transfer some of the ownership of and responsibility for solving complex issues and achieving societal goals back to the public – and the public must agree to take this on”. Applied to the context of media regulation here in Singapore, this means that there needs to be an active three-way dialogue between the regulator, the industry and the community, where all parties have an equal ability to initiate a discussion on any media regulatory matters.”

I do not believe that there had been adequate dialogue or discussion prior to the introduction of this new licensing requirement. I believe that I, as well as many other Singaporeans, are ready to “take on” the “transfer of … ownership and responsibility for solving complex issues and achieving societal goals” and would appreciate if the MDA would, “in the spirit of tripartism” and “based on a tripartite relationship of trust between the community, industry and the regulator”, which the MDA advocates, come together to make decisions “for more informed choice”

The review committee had reported that there is a need for the government to “Increase the transparency of regulatory processes to the community by increasing the information made available to the public.” I do not believe that this process has been adequately replicated in the introduction of this new licensing requirement.

In the interest of open, transparent and accountable governance, I believe that the MDA should furnish replies to the queries above, release immediately the survey that had been conducted to inform the introduction of this new licensing requirement as well as make it clear the MDA’s stance towards online news sites such as the TOC.

I look forward to receiving a response from you. This letter will be published on my blog and I would be sharing with my readers your response as well.

Thank you.

Roy

[1] Online news sites to be placed on a more consistent licensing framework as traditional news platforms http://www.mda.gov.sg/NewsAndEvents/PressRelease/2013/Pages/28052013.aspx

[2] Censorship Review Committee 2010 Report  http://www.mda.gov.sg/Public/Consultation/Documents/CRC_2010_Report.pdf

[3] Project CRC Survey 2010 http://www.mda.gov.sg/Public/Consultation/Documents/CRC_Survey.pdf

[4] TOC’s statement on MDA licensing of online news sites http://www.theonlinecitizen.com/2013/05/tocs-statement-on-mda-licensing-of-online-news-site/

[5] S’pore instills new licensing rule for online news sites http://www.zdnet.com/sg/spore-instills-new-licensing-rule-for-online-news-sites-7000015945/

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