And we are still calling this “light touch”

Yaacob Ibrahim light touchBy Howard Lee

Forget the irony of the Media Development Authority asking The Real Singapore to cease and desist on World Press Freedom Day itself – and to be honest, someone at MDA must really have a hugely twisted sense of humour.

What is even more concerning is the fact that there are so-called analysts who are “media observers and academics” who believe that MDA’s move reflects a “light touch” towards content regulation.

The points made by these “experts” would sound reasonable on any given day – MDA’s action was justified and reasonable because TRS is really an “extreme case”. But when we take a closer look at what this “extreme case” is, the argument becomes problematic.

For a start, almost all of them cited the legal woes of TRS as a means of justifying MDA’s action. MDA has, of course, lately stressed that it “would still have initiated the suspension even if there were no sedition charges. MDA’s move is also not dependent on the outcome of the sedition charges. As such, the issue of sub judice does not arise.”

If so, why then would these experts point explicitly to TRS’s legal woes? The views held by these independent observers, evidently based on MDA’s media statement, suggests that MDA need not have the intention for sub judice – really, who would, given our punitive laws? It does not, however, reduce the risk of sub judice. Otherwise, can anyone else charged for contempt now say, “I would have posted those remarks independent of the outcome of the court case”? Go figure.

Disregarding the legal reasons – which to date has yet to be decided by the courts – we would also find problems with the other reasons cited for the suspension: Namely, TRS’s alleged “bad behaviour”.

Professor Ang Peng Hwa of the Wee Kim Wee School of Communication and Information at Nanyang Technological University said that MDA’s decision “helped shed some light on how the Internet Code of Practice… can be used”. Prof Ang justified this by saying that TRS’s case “is not just any case that comes along, but one that has public sentiment against it and a court case”.

Presumably by “public sentiment”, Prof Ang would have an objective measurement, as a person of academic outlook would, and it might not be wrong to assume that he was referring to the petition for TRS to close down, which garnered about 1,300 signatures. If so, then a necessary comparison was the petition for STOMP to close down, which garnered 24,000 signatures.

mdaWhen TOC raised queries to MDA about what they intend to do with the STOMP petition, the reply was for us to identify for the agency where STOMP has done wrong and bring it up to them for evaluation.

“STOMP, like other class licensed and individually licensed sites, is required to comply with the Internet Code of Practice. If you have come across instances where STOMP is in breach of the Code, you are advised to bring these to our attention and MDA will investigate accordingly.”

However, MDA’s tone in relation to TRS was vastly different. In its media statement, the media regulator said that it was “satisfied that Takagi and Yang have contravened the Internet Code of Practice (ICOP). They have published prohibited material as defined by the Code to be objectionable on the grounds of public interest, public order and national harmony.”

How was MDA “satisfied” that TRS was in breach of the Code? Did someone come across instances where TRS breached the Code and submitted a report to MDA? If not, then how different was it from “public sentiment” against STOMP?

Between STOMP and TRS, how then has this case “shed light” on how MDA used the Internet Code of Practice? Has the light touch gone so light as to become invisible?

Then we have Singapore Management University law professor Eugene Tan, who opined that “this is the first time that MDA has resorted to suspension, but when you put it against the backdrop of TRS’ alleged egregious conduct, it becomes more of a question of when (to suspend), rather than whether.”

Earlier, when Breakfast Network decided to close down because it found MDA’s regulatory regime too onerous, media academic professor Cherian George had called it the end to the “light touch” policy. He opined that Breakfast Network tipped the scale because the “death by red tape” was unprecedented.

“Singapore’s vibrant ecosystem of socio-political blogs was spared the discretionary licensing regime that has blocked the development of alternative print and broadcast media. Blogs could be punished if what they published broke the law – but they were never expected to persuade regulators that they deserved the right to publish before they were allowed to do so.”

Ai Takagi and Yang Kaiheng with lawyer Choo Zheng Xi (image - CNA)

Ai Takagi and Yang Kaiheng with lawyer Choo Zheng Xi (image - CNA)

Indeed, bloggers can be punished if what the published broke the law, and TRS is facing the same now in a pending court case. But since when does it justify closing down an entire website, which is by all counts just as punitive, if not more so, than denying Breakfast Network the right to exist? How can the current order to close a website be a “lighter touch” than requesting its owners to take down objectionable content? To begin with, has MDA tried getting TRS to remove the pages it was “satisfied” contravened the Internet Code of Practice?

In that sense, the first time that MDA has “resorted to suspension” is not a light touch approach, as Prof Tan would have you believe. If anything, the touch just got heavier, simply because we have no reason to believe that MDA tried any other approach that would have been less heavy-handed.

And to cap it, we have this comment attributed to former NMP Calvin Cheng – “socio-political websites that operate within Singapore’s laws and social norms have nothing to fear”.

Unfortunately, Mr Cheng is gravely wrong, and the gravity would be worse if MDA has indeed censored TRS for flouting “social norms”. Efforts to repeal the death penalty, 377A or capital punishment are not “social norms” any way you look at it. Is Mr Cheng then suggesting that websites which champion these causes also go up for a review under the Code? What other “codes” would MDA tag onto the Broadcasting Act for its evaluation? Would it even tell us?

Personally, I’m not a fan of TRS. I find their content laughable at best, and downright unsavoury at worst. I’m definitely not agreeable to how they source for their content. But what bugs me more than a website like TRS, which I can always ignore, is MDA’s rationale and standards for the action it has taken against TRS, which I definitely cannot ignore.

To call it a “light touch” approach is to continue dabbling pointlessly in that tiring argument that the government will keep its hands off, until it has to. MDA has thus far not brought to the table clarity about when it has to step in, or on what basis it is stepping in.

And we are supposed to be assured that there is a “light touch” – TRS got shut down only because it did the bad stuff. If so, can MDA now step up and identify where exactly all this bad stuff is, and why it warrants closing down an entire website? Under what circumstances does a government agency have the right to make that judgement call?

MDA has been offered the opportunity to respond to this commentary.

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