MDA clampdown on TRS – observers express support and concerns

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“I am confident that MDA has done the right thing,” the Minister of Communications and Information (MCI), Yaacob Ibrahim, told the media on Sunday.

Yaacob
Yaacob

Dr Yaacob was referring to the order issued by the Media Development Authority (MDA) to the website, The Real Singapore (TRS), to shut itself down within six hours last week.

TRS was also ordered “to immediately stop posting any more articles on TRS and related services”, and “not to resume operations under any other name.”

Two of the three alleged editors of the website were arrested on 18 February and have since been charged with seven counts of sedition. The pair is reported to be a Singaporean with Australian permanent residency, and an Australian citizen.

The third alleged editor is said to be residing in Malaysia.

TRS complied with the MDA orders and disabled access to its various platforms about an hour before the 6-hours ultimatum last Sunday.

The MDA, a statutory board under the MCI, claims that TRS has contravened the Internet Code of Practice (ICOP), a set of rules laid down by the authorities in 1994, revised in 1997, and which form the basis from which the MDA derives its powers to police the Internet.

“They have published prohibited material as defined by the Code to be objectionable on the grounds of public interest, public order and national harmony,” the MDA said in a statement shortly after the orders to TRS were issued.

It added that TRS had “sought to incite anti-foreigner sentiments in Singapore”, and that the website was “seeking to make profit at the expense of Singapore’s public interest and national harmony.”

Dr Yaacob concurred and reiterated that the MDA has “enough evidence to show that all the materials” on TRS which prompted the shut-down orders are “very egregious and they can actually cause a lot of racial unhappiness.”

MDA has so far not specified the articles or content on TRS which it had found objectionable.

Explaining the reason for the action on TRS, Dr Yaacob said that “the most important thing for us is to preserve the racial and religious harmony that we have in Singapore”, and this was the reason why the authorities “had to move” on TRS.

The action by the MDA has since drawn mixed reactions from all quarters, with some cheering the closure of a website they consider to be inflammatory, while others raising concerns about the manner in which the MDA wielded its powers.

Indeed, some have questioned if those powers are too sweeping.

The #FreeMyInternet (FMI) group, made up of a number of Singapore bloggers, pointed to two “key problems” evident from the MDA action against TRS: the “disproportionate power vested in a statutory board, and unclear guidelines on actions to be taken against objectionable content.”

Au
Au

Human rights organisation, Maruah, expressed the same concerns of the “draconian measures” taken by the MDA.

“[They] legitimise excessive intervention by the state and set a precedent for the diminution of our online space,” it said.

Activist and blogger Alex Au was scathing of MDA’s actions, and described the statutory board as “the greater and more insidious threat to us”.

“Shrouded in a non-transparent process, it goes out to ban a website,” Mr Au said. “It flings accusations without offering proof. More dangerously, it plants the idea that it has the right to adjudicate truth and falsehood.”

However, not everyone sees it that way, such as Eugene Tan, Associate Professor of Law and Co-Director, SMU Centre for Scholars’ Development.

“Given the reach and the viral speed with which social media postings can affect social cohesion, such powers are necessary,” Assoc Prof Tan, who is also a former Nominated Member of Parliament, told The Online Citizen (TOC).

Tan Cheng Han
Tan Cheng Han

His views are also shared by Professor Tan Cheng Han, the chairman of the Media Literacy Council, and Chairman, Centre for Law & Business, NUS.

“I support MDA’s actions if the facts are correct,” Prof Tan said, “as I consider MDA’s exercise of its powers in such instance to be within a well-established ground.”

“Their actions fall within conduct that Singapore society has long considered to be highly objectionable,” he added, referring to TRS.

Prof Tan said that “there should be legitimate limits” on freedom of expression and that “this is recognised by all liberal societies.”

“Free speech cannot come at the expense of social and national harmony,” he said.

The nationality of TRS’ alleged editors was also a factor which has consequences for Singapore, said Assistant Professor Liew Kai Khiun of the Wee Kim Wee School of Communication and Information (WKWSCI), NTU.

He said the Singapore Government’s stated roles for the “legally accountable registered” foreign media is clearly spelt out and that when it came to “issues about the republic” it is one “confined to reporting and commentary rather than advocacy.”

The “foreign editors of TRS”, however, “have operated with anonymity  in carrying out a systematic and sustained agenda” which, Asst Prof Liew says, is “provocative journalism on Singapore’s cyber-soil.”

Assoc Prof Eugene Tan agrees.

Eugene Tan
Eugene Tan

“TRS’ editorial strategy appears to be one in which it sought to maximise private gain (generating traffic to their sites for advertising revenue) while the costs of their unethical and perhaps illegal action are socialised,” he said.

These consequences include “generating distrust between groups, increased social tension, fomenting social discord, and potentially, even instigating overt violence.”

Professor Ang Peng Hwa from the Journalism and Publishing division at the Wee Kim Wee School of Communication and Information, however, took a more nuanced view.

While he agreed that MDA’s powers were indeed “sweeping”, he said that its actions against TRS must be seen in perspective.

“Those of us who had been working with the SBA and then MDA have been concerned with [the] sweeping definitions in the Code,” he told TOC, referring to the predecessor of the MDA, the Singapore Broadcasting Authority.

“So, there are many of us concerned about the sweeping powers.”

However, Prof Ang said, the ICOP has since undergone some changes.

Ang Peng Hwa
Ang Peng Hwa

“Fortunately, the Code has been ‘streamlined’ to the extent that the more onerous provisions have been removed,” he explained.

While he acknowledged that the law gave the MDA broad powers, he said the action against TRS must be seen in context.

“If you look at the exercise of the class licence, it is the first time the licence has been withdrawn,” he said, referring to the MDA’s revocation of the licence to TRS to operate the website, triggering the shut-down orders issued to the site’s editors.

A class licence is an automatic licence which is presumed to be given by the authorities to any website operating in Singapore.

“If in 21 years, a law that has potentially sweeping powers and wide application is used once, I think it is fair to call it light handed,” Prof Ang said.

This was also a point which Dr Yaacob reiterated on Sunday.

“Since 1996, we’ve only had 27 interventions,” the minister said. “We have never shut down a site. We do this very, very carefully… and we have enough evidence to show that all the materials are very egregious and can cause a lot of racial unhappiness, we have to move.”

While it may be necessary for the MDA to possess such wide powers, as Assoc Prof Tan said, some have raised questions about its accountability and recourse for those affected.

Indeed, Assoc Prof Tan, who supports MDA having these broad powers, said “how such powers are used is… another question altogether.”

For example, the FMI group and Maruah have expressed concerns over the seemingly opaque manner in which the MDA acted.

“The unsubstantiated and extraordinary actions taken by MDA against TRS cannot be seen as rules-based, transparent, and fair; only arbitrary and selective,” FMI said, arguing that other websites have also published objectionable content but have been left untouched by the MDA.

“[The] MDA should explain why it decided to take action against The Real Singapore but not other sites that have published similar content, and why it believes the entire website had to be taken down instead of just the specific articles that it appropriately determines to be unlawful,” Maruah said.

“[The MDA] liberally uses words like ‘fabricated’, ‘false’ and ‘deceiving readers’ without providing any evidence what these instances were,” Au said.

But there are safeguards against any abuse, said Assoc Prof Tan.

“MDA’s powers can be challenged by way of judicial review and this is an important safeguard, even if it is not fully appreciated,” he explained.

TRS, for example, had seven days to lodge an appeal with the authorities and with the MCI minister himself.

The seven days’ period expired yesterday.

Assoc Prof Tan added that there is also “legislative oversight” where Members of Parliament can hold the government accountable, along with “the court of public and international opinion… which will temper executive over-exuberance and over-reach.”

“But I would expect the authorities to act without fear or favour and to do what is right,” Assoc Prof Tan said.

Would these be enough assurance to Internet users and particularly content producers?

One issue which have raised doubts about the MDA’s impartiality is the timing of its actions against TRS.

The MDA’s orders were issued on a Sunday, and on World Press Freedom Day, as well as at a time when the two alleged TRS editors were facing sedition charges before the court.

The MDA’s statement, when explaining its actions against TRS, had said that it “notes” that TRS “have been charged with seven counts of publishing seditious articles on TRS and the TRS Facebook page”.

Yang &Takagi, alledged editors of TRS
Yang &Takagi, alledged editors of TRS

Some have asked if it was right for the MDA to take action against TRS based on alleged charges which have yet to be proved.

“[Surely] the principle must be that they [the TRS editors] are innocent until proven guilty,” Au said. “That being the case, MDA should not use that as justification for any ban.”

The FMI group, which has asked for the MDA to withdraw its decisions on TRS, also raised similar concerns about MDA’s actions potentially influencing the outcome of the court case the two alleged editors are facing.

“As a statutory board, MDA should have known better than to take actions that can potentially pre-judge the court case,” FMI said.

The MDA, however, rejected such accusations.

It said that it would have acted against TRS even if there were no sedition charges.

“This regulatory action is independent of the sedition charges that Yang and Takagi currently face,” the MDA said, referring to the two alleged editors of TRS.

“MDA’s move is also not dependent on the outcome of the sedition charges,” said a spokesman, who added that the issue of sub-judice therefore did not arise.

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