By Choo Zheng Xi/co-Founder, TOC
If you’re reading this article, I want you to know that the new MDA licensing regime could potentially affect you.
If you read practically anything online, the licensing regime is likely to affect the content you view and the independence with which it is written.
If you run a website, you better hope that it doesn’t hit the magic 50,000 viewership number, unless you have a spare 50k you’d like to burn.
Under the catch-all provision of the new licensing regime, practically anyone whose website hits 50,000 views will potentially be asked to pay the performance bond, as long as you also post one “Singapore news programme” every week.
So, what is the definition of a “Singapore news programme”?
Congratulations, you’re regulated
The definition of a “Singapore news programme” under the licensing regime is so broad as to be completely ridiculous.
Under the gazette notice, a “Singapore news programme” is defined as literally everything to do with Singapore:
“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 intervals or otherwise) but does not include any programme produced by or on behalf of the Government”.
So, any celebrity, food and movie review blogger with more than 50,000 unique views a month would fall under the definition of carrying Singapore news programmes.
If you run a website that links to news, you’re caught too.
Under the regulations, it doesn’t matter that you’re not the creator of the content; the definition of “programme” encompasses material provided by a third party.
And this catch-all provision is being arbitrarily applied.
MDA has randomly applied their new regulations, with absolutely no basis to the manner in which they have chosen the first 10 websites.
Communications and Information Minister Yaacob Ibrahim has maintained complete opacity in how the regulations will apply, saying only: “We will continue to monitor the sites like we do now as part of our job and we will monitor their reach and content. If they cross the two thresholds, we’ll call them up and tell them they have to be licensed”.
So, under the blunderbuss definition that is now law in Singapore, only 10 websites in Singapore qualify?
That’s blatantly incorrect, as objective statistics of TOC’s viewership shows we’re far in excess of 50,000 unique viewers from Singapore a month.
So, it looks like MDA has chosen to dangle the sword of regulation over our heads while being as vague as possible about when they will use it.
One might be forgiven for thinking that the object of the licensing regime is to instill fear and obedience in the rest of the blogosphere, to cow independent websites and bloggers into submission by the threat of licensing.
P.s: MDA has curtailed your constitutional rights
But here’s the thing that should get you angry. Really angry.
For all the government’s talk about the “new normal” and the Singapore Conversation, these sweeping regulations were passed without an iota of public consultation. It wasn’t even given the legitimacy of a debate in Parliament.
The licensing regime was snuck into subsidiary legislation like a thief in the night.
Our Constitution, which is supposed to be the highest law of our land, guarantees “freedom of speech, assembly and association” and allows Parliament to restrict those freedoms only if it is necessary and expedient in very limited circumstances such as the interests of the security of Singapore, maintaining diplomatic relations and public order or morality.
To MDA, the Constitution apparently needs to bend its knee before the arbitrary and sweeping exercise of MDA’s regulatory authority.
The MDA has stolen a march on our constitutional protections by relying on its authority to make subsidiary legislation under the Broadcasting Act.
If this is the modus operandi of the new normal, we need to be very afraid.
The door is now open for other constitutional rights to be chipped away by subsidiary legislation masquerading as regulatory “guidelines”.
The new licensing regime has been compared to the introduction of the amendments to the Newspaper and Printing Presses Act in 1986 to bring foreign publications to heel.
The comparison falls short: the scope and audacity with which the present licensing regime presumes to be introduced makes the press laws of the 80s pale in comparison.
In 1986, there was debate, consultation and even Law Society input (and opposition).
Today, the new licensing regime is a fait accompli with not a squeak of public debate.
Now, the only option that remains is this: whether you’re a consumer or creator of online work, if you’re a Singaporean you need to push for the license gazette to be withdrawn.
A group of bloggers has gotten the ball rolling by putting our voices together in protest, but the snowball needs to be turned into an avalanche of protest for our voices to be heard.
Our call to action will issue soon.
Freedom of speech, assembly and association
—(1) Subject to clauses (2) and (3) —
(a) every citizen of Singapore has the right to freedom of speech and expression;
(b) all citizens of Singapore have the right to assemble peaceably and without arms; and
(c) all citizens of Singapore have the right to form associations.
(2) Parliament may by law impose —
on the rights conferred by clause (1)(a), such restrictions as it considers necessary or expedient in the interest of the security of Singapore or any part thereof, friendly relations with other countries, public order or morality and restrictions designed to protect the privileges of Parliament or to provide against contempt of court, defamation or incitement to any offence;
on the right conferred by clause (1)(b), such restrictions as it considers necessary or expedient in the interest of the security of Singapore or any part thereof or public order; and
on the right conferred by clause (1)(c), such restrictions as it considers necessary or expedient in the interest of the security of Singapore or any part thereof, public order or morality.
(3) Restrictions on the right to form associations conferred by clause (1) (c) may also be imposed by any law relating to labour or education.
Freedom of religion
—(1) Every person has the right to profess and practise his religion and to propagate it.
(2) No person shall be compelled to pay any tax the proceeds of which are specially allocated in whole or in part for the purposes of a religion other than his own.
(3) Every religious group has the right —
(a) to manage its own religious affairs;
(b) to establish and maintain institutions for religious or charitable purposes; and
(c) to acquire and own property and hold and administer it in accordance with law.
(4) This Article does not authorise any act contrary to any general law relating to public order, public health or morality.
Rights in respect of education