In Parliament on Monday, the Minister for Communications and Information (MCI), Yaacob Ibrahim, lambasted “prominent members of the online community” for not speaking up against what he said were misleading online postings.
The Straits Times reported the minister as having said “that prominent members of the online community … had rejected the idea of an Internet Code of Conduct, and greeted the formation of the [Media Literacy] Council with scepticism.”
Mr Yaacob then said:
“When public anxiety was highest during the days when the haze was at its worst, where were these prominent members of the online community who believed that the Internet should be left alone? Were they helping to clarify and reject online rumours, or were they helping to spread them or even create them?”
First, I do not know who the “prominent members of the online community” whom Mr Yaacob was referring to are, but I know of some bloggers who were out and about during that week of the haze, distributing water and masks to construction workers, the elderly and poor. Many of them also took it upon themselves to source for the N95 masks, even from overseas, to give to the needy, when stocks here ran out, and before the government announced it would be distributing the masks from its stockpile. That was what some of in the online community were doing. Others were engaged in disseminating information about the haze.
It is mischievous of the MCI minister to cast doubts on these members of the online community. It reminds one of another minister – Tan Chuan Jin - who also cast similar aspersions on online “keyboard warriors” about 2 weeks ago.
But let me get to the gist of Mr Yaacob’s accusation about “prominent members of the online community” not speaking up, and in particular about his allegations about how these members rejected his Internet Code of Conduct idea.
To be clear, and to demolish the minister’s baseless accusation, the online community had disseminated and helped to propagate the information which the National Environment Agency (NEA) had been putting out about the haze during that period when the smog descended on Singapore.
One only needs to keep tab of what was being posted and updated on the Facebook pages and Twitter accounts of some of the community blogs, for example, to know this. In fact, the hourly PSI and PM2.5 updates on the NEA website were being disseminated by these sites, as well as any news reports about the haze, or ministerial statements.
False information, to be sure, should also be expected – given the nature of the Internet – and the difficulty in ascertaining if any bit of information is true.
The minister cited several examples. One was the screenshot of a PSI of 393 which was reported to have been posted on the NEA website but subsequently removed. The minister asked why the online community did not speak up against this apparent misinformation. The truth is that at that point in time, no one knew what the truth was. And just because NEA said it wasn’t true does not mean that it in fact was not true. How does one ascertain the truth? The best that one can do is to post NEA’s clarification, which indeed some did.
Minister Yaacob used these examples of alleged misinformation to then accuse the online community of not speaking up while at the same time rejecting his Code of Conduct idea.
The insinuation here is that the online community wants its cake and eat it too. His attack seemed to be: the online community is unreasonable or even irresponsible.
But the minister is mistaken, and his argument is false or half-true.
The rejection of his Code of Conduct idea is not only from the online community – for even several members of the government-appointed 21-member Media Literacy Council (MLC) are not in favour of such a code, including its chairman, Mr Tan Cheng Han.
In an interview with the Straits Times last year, Mr Tan rejected the idea, saying that “regulating the Internet is not the solution.”
"Our Government is very pragmatic, and I think it knows that it can't be done… I don't think it was ever on the cards that netizens must comply or else face criminal sanctions," he said.
In another interview, Mr Tan dismissed any calls for a “clear line in the sand” type of regulation. “I don’t see a very significant or sustained voice calling out for this type of approach,” he said. “I do not see that greater policing is the answer.”
On the contrary, Mr Tan said he was heartened to see how the community had reacted to the Amy Cheong incident in 2012. Ms Cheong, who was a NTUC member and an Australian permanent resident working in Singapore then, had made a racist posting on her Facebook page cursing a racial group in Singapore. Her remarks caused a huge uproar both online and offline and the public condemned her.
Mr Tan said:
“First it is heartening to see the public express its strong disapproval of the sentiments.”
“I consider it a step forward, because it shows that our community can be counted upon to condemn such acts… This incident has shown us that when somebody behaves very badly, people will react. People will tell that person off, and tell that person that what you’ve done is wrong.”
Sociologist Daniel Goh said, “We have inculcated a kind of sensitivity and sensibility about what can and should be said, which is why there was a huge reaction against Amy Cheong. It shows something large in a very positive sense.”
Amy Cheong is only one of many instances where the online community spoke up against un-civic-minded behaviour, or undesirable action.
Another example is when the online community criticised the posting of photos of the two young boys who were killed in a traffic accident in Tampines earlier this year.
Ms Carol Soon, a researcher with the Institute of Policy Studies, noted the following in an article in February:
“The swift lambasting by some online citizens of the circulation of pictures of the Tampines accident is an example of communal vigilance. Soon after the photographs were posted, prominent bloggers and forum participants questioned the motives and the need for sharing such pictures. They called on the online community to show greater respect to the family of the boys who died.
“In response to an article on a self-purported "site for every Singaporean to express themselves" that wrongly reported on the cement truck driver's nationality, several visitors left comments which highlighted the inaccuracy of the information and questioned the writer's motive.
“Last year, communal vigilance countered the anti-foreigner tirade that took place online. Netizens spoke up against anti-foreigner posts through blogs and Facebook pages, with some starting their own blogs (such as "Every cloud has its silver lining") to expose how some websites fan xenophobic sentiments.”
The online community had not only spoken up in such instances but it has also “[harnessed]the Internet and social media to rally support for social causes, develop innovations, and facilitate collaborative learning”, as Mr Tan put it.
“One example that caught his eye was how some activists used social media to campaign for changes to the mandatory death penalty,” the Straits Times reported Mr Tan as having said. “He said it may have contributed to the recent changes made by the Government.”
"This shows the Internet can be a force for good... It provides a forum for robust debate," he added.
So, what am I trying to say?
It is easy to pick a few examples to further one’s cause – and in this case, it is disingenuous and misleading of the MCI minister to cite a few examples of what he purports to be misinformation or attempts at misinformation, while ignoring the many other positive examples and instances, to justify the introduction of new Internet regulations.
It smacks of cheap opportunism.
And for a minister to attack an individual blogger – as he did with Mr Ravi Philemon - and to do so in Parliament, knowing full well that the individual is not present to defend himself, is most unbecoming of the minister. Again, it smacks of cheap opportunism.
Having said all that, the bottomline is this: after more than a month since the introduction of the MDA Internet regulations, what seems to be clear is only one thing. And it is this: the regulations are to be enforced in an entirely arbitrary manner.
The takedown order for an article or any content is arbitrary. No one knows what content is or could specifically be deemed undesirable.
The 50,000 unique visitors to a website, which would trigger licensing, is an arbitrary number plucked out of thin air. How does MDA ascertain if a site had reached such traffic numbers? It does not say. It is – again – an arbitrary decision.
The S$50,000 performance bond was arbitrarily transferred from the MDA's niche TV licensing scheme. When questioned what would happen if a blogger or website is unable to furnish this amount, the minister told parliament that there is room for negotiation. In other words, MDA reserves the right to enforce this arbitrarily.
The definition of what constitutes “news” is arbitrary because the definition is all encompassing. Foreign news sites such as CNN and the BBC do not fall under the regulations, but local sites do.
The criteria of reporting one news article per week for a period of 2 months is also arbitrary. There is no explanation or justification of how this was decided upon. As Mrs Lina Chiam noted – how is it that a website which reports a S’pore news item once per week is considered a “news site”?
And why do The Online Citizen and TR Emeritus, for example, not qualify presently under the new regulations even though it is quite clear that they do meet the criteria? This question has been asked several times by different people. The MDA’s answer is simply, “They do not qualify.” There is no explanation, no substantial clarification. The minister was also asked this question by Mrs Lina Chiam on Monday. The minister avoided answering the question entirely. It thus seem that who qualifies for licensing is also an arbitrary decision.
And so on and so on.
So, to conclude, the minister should spend more time coming up with better and more substantial explanations for his regulations which, incidentally, have got many quarters – and not just bloggers or the ordinary netizen – puzzled and concerned.
All that the minister has to offer so far is, ultimately, two words – “trust us”.
But with his baseless, misguided and ill-informed attacks on the online community and individual bloggers, trusting the minister, or his ministry or the MDA, should not be an automatic thing, especially when the minister himself is unable to provide clarity on the matter, even after so many weeks.
As Lydia Lim of the Straits Times said in her commentary piece on Monday’s parliamentary session, “Yesterday’s sitting was a reminder that the political leadership needs to work on both fronts to maintain the trust of its supporters and to win over doubters.”
At the moment, Mr Yaacob is flailing desperately and failing miserably on both counts. It is sad that instead of devoting more effort to achieve these two goals, he instead has chosen to take cheap pot shots at others.