by Howard Lee
In the administration of any nation, there is always a fine line between following the rules dogmatically to the book, and nitpicking on the details of the rules that borders on insanity.
This week, the Prime Minister's Office and the Media Development Authority of Singapore could very well have crossed that line, when they demanded for The Online Citizen to be registered as a political association and as a political website under the Broadcasting Act, respectively.
Little wonder, then, that the online world is already aflame with chatter that casts unhealthy aspersions on these two agencies, raising suspicions that their actions are motivated by the impending general elections.
But looking beyond the expressed indignity of the situation, cold logical deduction does not seem to be able to justify the actions of PMO and MDA. Worse, the impact seems to extend beyond TOC and politics, throwing bad vibes into Singapore's online media landscape that can only be summed up as “regressive”.
On what justification?
The key factor that both agencies called on to demand TOC's registration to both standards hinges on one criteria: That TOC is a political entity by virtue of its main activities.
Neither PMO nor MDA has clarified on the specific examples of these activities that led to this conclusion on their parts. Followers of the emerging story are led to conclude on their own that these demands were based on:
- TOC organising the Face-to-Face Forum, and/or
- TOC covering politically sensitive issues in its reporting.
If this reaction by the authorities was based on the first, then it is a weak position indeed. The Face-to-Face Forum was a one-off event. Yes, we may lament about that particular fact, but for the moment, it will not turn regular and can hardly constitute TOC's main activities. Furthermore, the event was not political in nature, in terms of alignment to a particular political party or cause. If anything, it was anti-political, because it opened up a panel of politicians to scrutiny by the event participants. In short, Face-to-Face placed the interests of citizens over politics. How this one event can constitute "activities that relate wholly or mainly to politics" is anyone's guess.
The second justification is even more difficult to swallow. Least we be confused, there is a difference between party politics and the politics of life. If TOC is guilty of political association due to its articles, then it is its concern with the politics of life, the daily issues that matter to Singaporeans, that skews its reporting.
If TOC has indicated its interest to be the voice of non-mainstream politics, does that make it party-political? In reality, it is near impossible for a blog site to champion any particular party. On an open platform, everyone has an equal chance to give their opinions, and its most enduring quality is that the writer will never have the final say.
As such, I am left wondering about the rationale of PMO and MDA in making these decisions, let alone their intent. I am not inclined to believe that these actions are themselves politically motivated, as suggested by many online, but the only other deduction is that there are people at the helm calling these shots who are either really very anal vigilant about due process, or just plain stupid logically challenged. Without a clear and unquestionable justification from the responsible agencies, it is only fair that public speculation rules.
But if TOC relents to the demands, what does it really mean?
Administratively, these requirements are an extra pain, implying the need to dedicate resources to maintain these two standards, even if they bear absolutely no relation to what TOC does, or risk running afoul for the law, and subsequently closure. There is also the issue of foreign donations, which alone is already quite a task to track in an online world. For example, does online payment for a Poli-Tee constitute a donation?
Should TOC subscribe themselves to these standards, by the rule of law, it would be classified as a political entity, together with all the perceived biases and agendas that are associated with political entities. But of course, what goes by law - and the rhetoric of political publicity that we can surely expect to come - need not necessarily resound with TOC's many readers, nor the plain common sense of Singaporeans.
The true impact, unfortunately, is on our emerging online media landscape. Netizens will remember this against the backdrop of the supposedly "soft touch" approach professed by the authorities, and view these as unjust incursions into the online world. Trust has been undermined, purely by the virtue that such requirements have been imposed on TOC.
The gravity of the situation, should TOC relent, happens on two fronts. The first is the possible need for TOC to "tone down" its reporting for fear of a forced shutdown. Put simply, the authorities now have the option to bring the law to bear on TOC for even the slightest of infringements to the guidelines of the Broadcasting Act. In the words of MDA inToday on 12 Jan:
"Registration does not mean that the discussion of political topics is disallowed. Registration also does not entail more stringent conditions... Registration is to emphasise to Internet content providers to be responsible and accountable for what they say online."
In other words, we're not going to say you can't be open in your writing about politics. Just make sure you keep a check on exactly how open you are.
The second front is already apparent in the concerns of other similar social-political blogs and forums - that they could be the next in line. To maintain their continued online freedom, ironically, such potential "political associations" would quite likely give up more freedom. In the words of James Gomez, we risk self-censorship - before being required to do so, and maybe without consciously doing so.
The overall effect could be a chilling of the online environment. Online media would be worse from it, as would critical thinking and public participation. In truth, blogs and forums have struggled hard in past years, and have gained some traction in defining themselves as credible sources of public discourse. Contrary to popular belief, it is precisely free and open discussion that builds credibility for online media, rather than attempts to adhere to some standards of reporting.
To allow that to slide back now is like a descent back into the early days of suspicion and ignorance.
So what now?
When I dropped a note to the editor asking if he needed help for this situation, his reply was, "the best help you can give is to keep the articles coming!"
I have written for TOC all this while primarily because I do not believe they align with any agenda other than the everyday Singaporean. It is this focus that I felt was lacking in traditional media, and an important value that will allow TOC to survive and thrive.
This value has drawn many readers, commentators and writers - you and me - to its pages. Hungry for alternative views, we return not to be part of any political association, but to be part of a free media environment that is not inhibited by self censorship, professional exclusivity of contribution, or stakeholder interests. TOC exists not just because of its writers, subjective as they may be, but also for the many voices who contribute comments and encourage the exchange of ideas.
All of us form this community of Singaporeans.
Whatever the outcome of this situation, the desire to speak up for everyday Singaporeans cannot waver. We need to continue our association with this community, not because it represents any political interests, but because it echoes our own wishes as citizens, online or otherwise.
And it is in our interest to ensure that fair and open debate continues in this community, to continue holding traditional media and our leaders accountable for any inability to represent us. Our participation should not change because of TOC's gazetting. If anything, it should be stronger, because what is at stake the future of online media in Singapore - a media that we can finally call our own.
The writer is a corporate communication professional. He graduated 10 years ago, but has never stopped being a media student.