The Singapore government is stepping up censorship control of local online news sites which report regularly on the country and have significant reach.
From 1 June, 10 websites will be subjected to an individual licence, just like traditional media platforms.
Once the affected sites come under the individual licensing regime, they will have to fork out a performance bond of S$50,000. They will also have to comply with any take-down notice from authorities within 24 hours. The authorities can ban
content including tha which solicits for prostitution, undermines racial and religious harmony, or goes against good taste.
Communications and Information Minister Dr Yaacob Ibrahim also hinted that the rule may in future apply to overseas news sites reporting on Singapore. He said the Broadcasting Act will be amended next year, with the view of including overseas
news sites reporting on Singapore. Yaacob said:
Our mainstream media are subjected to rules, you know... Why shouldn't the online media be part of that regulatory framework? I don't see this as a clamping down, if anything, it is regularising what is already happening on the Internet and
(making sure) that they are on par with our mainstream media.
Online news sites which fulfil two specific criteria will be subjected to this latest censorship scheme.
Sites which publish at least eight articles on Singapore over a period of two months.
They must also have been visited by at least 50,000 unique IP addresses from Singapore each month, over the same period.
So far, 10 such sites have been identified. All belong to mainstream media, with the exception of Yahoo news.
A Singaporean news site known as Breakfast Network was forced to close down after it rejected onerous new government registration requirements. Founded by former Straits Times journalist and blogger Bertha Henson, the site features social
and political news and commentary. Henson elected to cease website operations after failing to submit documents demanded by the Media Development Authority (MDA). Despite warnings from the MDA, Breakfast Network is maintaining an online presence
through its Facebook and Twitter accounts.
Under a section of the Broadcasting (Class License) Act introduced last June , a corporate entity or website providing political commentary must register with the MDA to ensure that it does not receive foreign funding. Aside from revealing its
funding source, the website must submit the personal information of its editors and staff.
Breakfast Network was ordered by the MDA to register on or before December 17 but the website editor said the government's technical requirements and registration forms contained too many vague provisions .
For its part, the MDA directed Breakfast Network to cease its online service, including its Facebook and Twitter publications:
Since Breakfast Network has decided not to submit the registration form, and will therefore not be complying with the registration notification, MDA will require that Breakfast Network cease its online service.
Netizens and media groups quickly denounced the overly-intrusive requirements imposed by the government and warned against excessive media regulation. Cherian George described the site's closure as death by red tape . Braema Mathi
of the human rights group Maruah worried that the registration requirement has chilled and reduced the space for free expression in Singapore. She continued:
As a regulator tasked with developing the media landscape in Singapore, MDA should consider the substantive impact of its decisions, not just its own subjective intent. Registration requirements can operate to censor free expression as
effectively as, and more insidiously than, outright demands to remove content.
The closure of a leading socio-political website has put a spotlight on what the Singaporean government calls a light touch approach Internet regulation. Many groups believe this and other new policies are undermining media freedom in the
Singapore is set to introduce a new anti-fake news law, allowing authorities to remove articles deemed to breach government regulations.
The law, being read in parliament this week will further stifle dissent in an already tightly-controlled media environment. Singapore's Prime Minister Lee Hsien Loong suggested that the law would tackle the country's growing problem of online
misinformation. It follows an examination of fake news in Singapore by a parliamentary committee last year, which concluded that the city-state was a target of hostile information campaigns.
Lee said the law will require media outlets to correct fake news articles, and show corrections or display warnings about online falsehoods so that readers or viewers can see all sides and make up their own minds about the matter. In extreme and
urgent cases, the legislation will also require online news sources to take down fake news before irreparable damage is done.
Facebook, Twitter and Google have Asia headquarters in Singapore, with the companies expected to be under increased pressure to aid the law's implementation.
The Committee to Protect Journalists has condemned the Singapore parliament's passage of legislation that will be used to stifle reporting and the dissemination of news, and called for the punitive measure's immediate repeal.
The Protection from Online Falsehoods and Manipulation Act , which was passed yesterday, gives all government ministers broad and arbitrary powers to demand corrections, remove content, and block webpages if they are deemed to be
disseminating falsehoods against the public interest or to undermine public confidence in the government, both on public websites and within chat programs such as WhatsApp, according to news reports .
Violations of the law will be punishable with maximum 10-year jail terms and fines of up to $1 million Singapore dollars (US$735,000), according to those reports. The law was passed after a two-day debate and is expected to come into force in the
next few week.
Shawn Crispin, CPJ's senior Southeast Asian representative said:
This law will give Singapore's ministers yet another tool to suppress and censor news that does not fit with the People's Action Party-dominated government's authoritarian narrative. Singapore's online media is already over-regulated and
severely censored. The law should be dropped for the sake of press freedom.
Law Minister K. Shanmugam said censorship orders would be made mainly against technology companies that hosted the objectionable content, and that they would be able to challenge the government's take-down requests,.