By Howard Lee

Some writings are meant to be clear. The media statement by the FreeMyInternet group on Media Development Authority vs. The Independent and Breakfast Network is one such. Within the first three paragraphs, it stated categorically that MDA lacks the authority to govern the online space, and elaborated on the two key reasons why the group felt so.

No surprise then, that even mainstream media, presumably a bit more reticent to speak badly about a government agency, could still effectively publish these two key reasons clearly and continued to seek clarifications from MDA.

Other writings are less so – at times bent on evading the need to provide answers to the very questions it raised, and at times bent on defending a position to the point of being self defeating. The response by Calvin Cheng, former Nominated Member of Parliament, to the FreeMyInternet statement, is one that possibly embodies both such.

Cheng opened with a laborious effort, spanning more than half his post, in claiming MDA’s forms were not onerous, simply because The Independent has registered successfully. In effect, Cheng argued that what is good for the goose is good for the gander (or the reverse, considering the gender of the two website chiefs involved).

Let’s do the maths here, since Cheng is inclined towards logic and facts. To our knowledge, MDA has thus far issued this registration requirement for two websites. One of two folded, citing difficulties with the registration. The Independent, while registered, has also indicated that the process was less than smooth. In net effect, MDA’s success rate with having clear and reasonable forms that led to a satisfactory registration is effectively less than 50%.

There was a time in our history when 60.1% was deemed a backward slide for a clear mandate. It is perhaps a tad amusing that Cheng should declare anything less than 50% an indicator of success.

To simply focus on completed registration(s) as proof that the forms were not onerous is to blatantly commit a fatal fallacy in customer service: Because my dinners did not throw half-eaten food back at me, and paid for it, I can conclude that they are satisfied customers, my food is excellent and my restaurant is top notch.

As a public agency, MDA can definitely do better than that.

Cheng continued to cast doubts on the veracity of the FMI statement, by citing its “failure to understand the current regulatory framework”.

He indicated that “Yahoo, brought up as an example of inconsistency by the FMI movement, is already covered by the Broadcast (sic) Act. There are no double-standards.” We would then expect Cheng to further enlighten his readers on why it is insufficient for the two websites to be covered under the Broadcasting Act as well, and are instead required to further furnish MDA with additional details.

Indeed, paragraph 43 of the Act provides a smorgasbord of requirements that govern foreign funding – is this not sufficient for The Independent and Breakfast Network to comply with?

Unfortunately, there was no further elaboration from Cheng.

Even more unfortunately, MDA seems unable to help Cheng with his argument when it declared to Today that “its registration forms for the two sites were longer because it specifically allowed them to receive revenue from genuine foreign commercial sources”.

This revelation actually casts more questions on double-standards. Might it suggest that the ten websites involved in the June 2013 amendments to the Act were not required to provide the additional details that The Independent and Breakfast Network were put through in the “longer forms”?

Also, how is MDA’s effort to help the two website “receive revenue from genuine foreign commercial sources” different from allowing Yahoo, SPH and Mediacorp to receive advertising from foreign companies on their media platforms, such that this additional effort in registration is required?

If MDA does indeed intend to bring online media up to the same regulatory framework as traditional media – ignore for a moment that that in itself is fraught with inequalities – then where exactly is that line drawn and what clarity do we have that it is the same starting point for everyone?

Again, no elaboration from Cheng.

Cheng then goes on to allege that Facebook and Twitter platforms owned by individuals that cover political content, “being non-commercial, many run as a hobby, do not need any funding in the first place. It makes no sense for any regulator to ask an individual hobbyist to register a company so that they can regulate him. That is just twisted logic.”

To be completely fair, the FMI statement did not ask MDA to register such platforms, nor for the owners of such platforms to register a company. It was instead stating an obvious point for consideration – which Cheng has very kindly demonstrated to be illogical.

Indeed, one might even be led to believe that Cheng was perhaps trying to hard to prevent such platforms from exposing their owners and administrators, although such an effort is clearly unnecessary.

But if I may then apply this twisted logic to the case of Breakfast Network: Since Breakfast Network Pte Ltd has wound up as a company, hence ceasing as a commercial entity, and the social media platforms are not run with any foreign backing other than Bertha Henson’s own clock and pocket, why has MDA opted to regulate these as well?

Again, no elaboration from Cheng.

Yet, far from Cheng’s assertion that the FMI statement was “an overreaction”, FMI has instead opened the doors to MDA for clarification, without reasonable doubt, on these two cases. As it is, we are still left with more questions than answers.

Indeed, taking a broader approach, this unfortunate incident with The Independent and Breakfast Network actually has much less to do with the two websites, as Cheng seems to suggest. Rather, the impact of this lack of clarity has a wider impact on anyone who wishes to set up a news site, and who might not even be sure if the details in the forms published on MDA’s website are all that is required, since MDA can currently hold any permutation of the forms without full disclosure to the public.

Again, MDA as a public agency can definitely do better than that.

And Cheng is actually not helping them much by putting in such a great effort to shed more light on the issue. Nevertheless, if he so wishes to answer the above questions point by point, TOC will be happy to publish his clarifications.

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