MDA’s Licensing Requirement: Your Rights And Singapore’s Future At Stake

Do you know that Singapore is one of the ASEAN states which had “reaffirmed” their “adherence” to the ASEAN Human Rights Declaration?

Specifically, there are two clauses which state that:

22. Every person has the right to freedom of thought, conscience and religion. All forms of intolerance, discrimination and incitement of hatred based on religion and beliefs shall be eliminated.

23. Every person has the right to freedom of opinion and expression, including freedom to hold opinions without interference and to seek, receive and impart information, whether orally, in writing or through any other medium of that person’s choice.

On Tuesday, the Media Development Authority (MDA) had introduced licensing requirements which “makes it clear that online news sites are expected to comply within 24 hours to MDA’s directions to remove content that is found to be in breach of content standards.”

Singaporeans Do Not Have the Right to Freedom (sorry for pointing out the obvious) 

So, even as all Singaporeans should rightfully have the “freedom of thought”, it seems that the MDA might have deemed it fit that they could unilaterally decide on what content “is found to be in breach of content standards”? And then, if indeed, according to the Censorship Review Committee 2010 Report, 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”, then which agency, or agencies, would be truly behind MDA’s decisions? Freedom of thought?

Also, MDA had stated that, “online news sites are required to put up a performance bond like all other individually-licensed broadcasters, and the sum of $50,000 is consistent with that required of niche TV broadcasters.”

The Online Citizen had said 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.” TR Emeritus had also said that there is now the “resulting uncertainty over the future of TR Emeritus”.

The $50,000 performance bond would thus compromised on Singaporeans’ “right to freedom of opinion and expression”. On top of that, Today had also reported that, “Under the regime, operators of news sites which defy the authorities’ order to apply for a licence could face a fine of up to S$200,000 or a maximum jail term of three years or both.”

MDA’s very act can be interpreted as an act of “interference” which prevents Singaporeans from being able to “seek, receive and impart information” and it certainly looks like Singaporeans’ “choice” of their “right” to information would be severely curtailed.

The Human Rights Declaration was adopted by Singapore on 18 November 2012. Within half a year, Singapore has put paid to the declaration and has rendered it useless.

The United Nations had raised concerns about the declaration and had said that, “We strongly encourage the inclusion of language which makes explicit that the restrictions must be provided by law and conform to the strict tests of necessity and proportionality, and that these restrictions may not put in jeopardy the right itself or apply to rights that are non-derogable under international law.” According to the Coalition of Singapore NGOS, “Singapore does not have a National Human Rights Institution,” so what then is there to hold Singapore accountable to the declaration, or even to basic human rights incursions in Singapore?

The Human Rights Watch was even more hard-hitting and said that, “This Declaration should never be the basis to excuse the failure of a state to meet its international human rights obligations.” Unfortunately, even with the declaration “reaffirmed” for its “adherence”, it has become a lame duck declaration, as The Jakarta Post had rightfully called it.

Without any National Human Rights Institution or penalty for not observing the ASEAN Human Rights Declaration, which in itself is a laughing stock, there is nothing to hold Singapore accountable to contravening the declaration, and thus the current intrusion of the rights of Singaporeans through MDA’s introduction of the licensing requirement.

Singaporeans Were Not Consulted on Licensing Requirement

Today had reported that, “The new rules were crafted in consultation with the industry players.” Were these “industry players” members of the Internet and Media Advisory Committee (INMAC)? You can see the members at this link here. Mr Ravi Philemon had also pointed out that these members were “behind the Media Convergence Review Report, who may have inadvertently nudged MDA towards this new licensing framework for online news sites.”

According to the Censorship Review Committee 2010 Report, “Quantitative and qualitative surveys have been undertaken by the regulator to guide its decisions on policy reviews and content guidelines.” Yet, if indeed, a “tripartite relationship of trust between the industry, community and the regulator” should be built to be consulted on these surveys, where is the “community” in this picture?

None of the online websites were aware, or even consulted on this “licensing framework”. It seems that only the Internet and Media Advisory Committee, which involved only “industry” players were consulted, or actually, had been the ones which had recommended the licensing.

Perhaps Communications and Information Minister Yaacob Ibrahim summed it up most nicely when he had said that, “We realised we need to do something to the framework because it’s not fair to our mainstream media.”

And why would it be unfair to the mainstream media? To that, Mr Ravi Philemon might have the answer, when he said that, “It certainly looks like there’s political motivation behind this new licensing framework, and the motivation seem to be to rein-in Yahoo! Singapore.” To be clear, Yahoo! Singapore would only be the beginning.

The National Solidarity Party (NSP) had also opined that, “One wonders if this rule will also be extended to articles critical of government policy, articles tagged with reader comments that are critical of the government and articles that generally express opinions contrary to prevailing political wisdom.”

MDA’s Licensing Requirement Is Detrimental to Singapore’s Long Term Future

More importantly, what is the impact of the introduction of this licensing requirement?

The Singapore Democratic Party (SDP) succinctly pointed out that, “On the economic front, Singapore has come to a stage where we can, and must, have a more open society. This will help to encourage critical thinking which will, in turn, encourage an innovative culture to take root. This process is essential for the sustainability of our economic development. Unfortunately, the latest move to tighten online media will do the opposite, that is, the measure will have the tendency to breed more fear and conformist behaviour. This will put Singapore at a further disadvantage when it comes to our competitiveness on the global stage.”

The NSP further elaborated that, “Taken together, the NSP believes that the spirit and the conditions of the new regulation will have a regressive effect on the development of the local media industry and the quality of journalism at large in our country. While the Government has made much of its intention to be more open and engaged with the citizenry, by this latest move, we cannot help but be left with the feeling that it has merely been paying lip service to the notion of a National Conversation.”

And if it is not already obvious, the SDP went on to sound the death knell by saying that, “At the same time, the Government should realise that efforts to rein in the Internet will not succeed. The introduction of this policy will simply make Singaporeans more determined to use the new media as a news source as well as to push for greater media freedom.”

This was echoed by The Era which said that, “the clampdown would “force” us to conduct discourses in other ways”, where Singaporeans  “should ask for more boycott of the mainstream media, actively encouraging more people to question what they read and hear in there” and “more actively boycott PAP and PAP-affiliated activities while participating more in Opposition ones”.

Attend the Protest to Stand Up For Your Rights

“A group of community of websites in Singapore that provide sociopolitical news and analysis to Singaporeans”, including The Heart Truths, released a media statement to “call on the Ministry of Communications and Information to withdraw the licensing regime” and for “our elected representatives to oppose the licensing regime.” We are “planning to organise an actual protest, which will take place in the next week or so. (as reported by Yahoo! Singapore)”

The government’s control and regulation of the Internet can have a potentially very dire impact on Singapore and our long term survival. To progress into the knowledge economy, we would require Singaporeans who are able to receive a wealth of diverse information, so that we would be able to learn to be critically informed and thoughtful in our analyses. This licensing requirement has the potential to severely curb Singapore’s intellectual growth and development.

We need to take a strong stand against such misdemeanor by the government. Singaporeans, we need to stand up for one another and protect our country and our home.

We need to take a strong stand and protect our country from such scrooge.

More information will be released in the next few days.

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