Friday, 29 September 2023

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MDA’s belated “assurances”: Don’t let your guard down

By Choo Zheng Xi / Co-Founder

For and on behalf of The Online Citizen

After facing a wall of public anger, MDA has tried to explain away the most sweeping limitations to Singaporeans’ constitutionally protected right to free speech by issuing belated and non-binding assurances today.

Before we examine these “assurances”, let’s do a brief recap.

The MDA has succeeded in gazetting legislation that has re-defined the plain English understanding of what a “news program” is.

Under MDA doublespeak (which is now enshrined in law), a Singapore news program is defined as everything:

“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”.

Backtracking but not backing down

MDA “assures” us that it will not apply the licensing regime on “an individual publishing views on current affairs and trends on his/her personal website or blog which does not amount to news reporting”.

The MDA “assurances” do not address the direct concerns of the public about the width of the legislation. This is because MDA’s “assurances” are absolutely not what the licensing regime states in black and white.

All that the MDA’s “assurance” really means is that it will, for the time being arbitrarily exercise their discretion not to apply the full extent of their powers under law to individual bloggers.

MDA can’t even give a coherent explanation about why sites like TOC don’t fall under the licensing regime despite objective site statistics.

Do they have a coherent game plan as to how to apply the regime to the rest of the country? I don’t think so. It sounds like they’re making policy parameters up on the fly.

Let’s be clear: there is absolutely nothing stopping MDA from applying the licensing regime to individual bloggers down the line. And, because of their creative re-definition of the term “Singapore news programme”, they will be able to do so with complete impunity.

Keep being engaged

I wrote an earlier piece generally setting out why YOU should care about this hurriedly passed piece of legislation as a Singaporean citizen.

Here’s a couple more.

The movement against the licensing regime isn’t about politics.

Pro-government bloggers should be just as concerned as bloggers who are critical of the current government.

The current government will not remain in power forever, and today’s pro-government blogger could easily be 2016’s opposition internet activist.

If the licensing regime remains on the books, it leaves the door open for you to be licensed somewhere in the future despite the MDA’s non-binding “assurances” of today. The re-definition of “Singapore news program” has left the licensing regime wide open to potential abuse.

If you’re a governing party MP, you need to oppose the licensing regime because the manner in which the license regime was gazetted renders you even more useless than a rubber stamp. Rubber stamps typically go through the motions of scrutinizing and debating legislation.

MDA hasn’t even bothered to ask you to rubber stamp their restrictions on freedom of speech this time around. They’ve just gone ahead and done it.

To my fellow Singaporeans, remember this: fool us once, shame on you. Fool us twice, shame on us.

After the bamboozling license regime MDA’s rammed into place, will we continue to let them talk circles around us with “assurances”?

If so, shame on us indeed.

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