By Melissa Tsang
Not long after the first lilies were laid before the tombstone of Free Speech, an eager crowd had arrived at Hong Lim Park in solidarity with the #FreeMyInternet movement. The movement calls for the retraction of the Media Development Authority’s (MDA) new licensing scheme for news sites.
Protesters’ concerns were centred on the “restrictive” nature of the scheme. Many highlighted that its wide scope allowed for an excessive degree of regulatory discretion and “potential for abuse”.
Vincent Wijeysingha expressed disappointment at the “contravention of a major civil liberty”, a sentiment echoed by Koh Wei Jie, an incoming freshman at Yale-NUS College, who also saw the scheme as fundamentally undemocratic, in that “adding regulation cannot be ‘light touch’ when its blanket nature is itself heavy-handed”. Dennis, also a student at Yale-NUS College, evoked the image of the frog boiling in water, saying that “it comes to a stage where people accept (censorship), and don’t even realize they’ve accepted it, because it’s come so slowly.”
Despite the assurance from the government that socio-political bloggers would not be targets of this scheme, which would be implemented with a “light touch” approach, protesters were quick to articulate their distrust of the government’s promise to act in good faith. Some protesters pointed out that this distrust is only fair. Ng Yi-Sheng, who writes for various sites, raised the example of the government’s promise not to enforce Section 377A (of the Penal Code) to illustrate his point that very little trust can arise when “the government has shown that it is no friend of civil liberties”. Mint Kang, a freelance journalist, said that “trust goes two ways” – “It is obvious that the government does not trust its people to act for what is good for the country; does not believe that responsible journalism is possible. The reverse question is, why should the people, then, trust the government to also act in good faith?”
Others expressed their disillusionment – Ivan, who described himself as “having been around the block long enough”, said about the “light-touch” assurance, “The (population) White Paper was passed as “just a projection” – does the government think we were born yesterday?”
Protesters also took issue with the “undemocratic” manner in which the scheme was passed, most raising the fact that it was not debated in Parliament, and that the public was not consulted at any stage. Lim Jialiang, a student at Nanyang Technological University, observed that “the government tends to believe that it can act without evidence”. This is because “it sees paternalism as unproblematic for the sake of what they assume to be advancing the social good of Singaporeans”.
Ultimately, protesters were agreed that the new scheme would not make for better-informed and discerning readers who read “the right thing”. While acknowledging that the Internet has the potential to misinform and be used as a platform for hate speech, they emphasized that it is particularly adept at being self-regulatory. This self-regulation in turn, said Vincent, can only be facilitated by “allowing readers ownership of public space”.
Jialiang added that it is important to equip readers with critical thinking skills in order to nurture a mature and discerning online community. “The government’s regressive approach of treating readers like infants is frankly quite absurd. It is funny how the Media Literacy Council is not being consulted – obviously their opinions are not needed,” he mused.