Singapore’s Media Development Authority have gone to some lengths in an attempt to downplay the chilling effect on freedom of expression likely to result from the recently announced licensing regime for news websites. One of the more peculiar claims was that the changes are intended to bring about “parity” between online and mainstream media sources. Reporters Without Borders quite rightly described this suggestion as “utterly absurd”. When it comes to broadcasting television programs over the airwaves, regulation and licensing is required because there is a definite lack of broadcasting spectrum, the allocation of which needs to be carefully managed. Given the relative scarcity of available frequencies, there is an argument to be made for creating an artificial barrier to entry to discourage wastage. It should be obvious that no such argument exists online – in fact the power of the internet is that the opposite applies – anyone with a single meaningful thought can and will share it with the world at the click of a button. For this reason, MDA’s purported intent – to create parity – is detached from reality.
Furthermore, the mainstream media in Singapore which MDA seek to bring websites into parity with are far from a beacon of excellence. Singapore’s television and print media are so cowed by the spectre of government interference that they score lower than that of Vladimir Putin’s Russia in RSF’s press freedom rankings. It seems clear that the parity MDA seeks establish is one wherein both online and offline media are equally lacking in the freedom to express views critical of the government. To deploy the over used butterfly and toad-in-a-well analogy, it seems that MDA wishes to kill the butterfly of online freedom and throw its corpse down the well, to rot in parity with the shackled toad.
In spite of all this, Singapore’s ruling party present us with one further paradox of parity. Alex Au of Yawning Bread fame argues – in a magnificent post which makes the point through images rather than words – that the government does not have any intrinsic desire for parity. When it suits them – for example on the question of 377A – they are quite happy to avoid a form of parity apparently on the grounds that some segments of society find it offensive. The contrast with MDA’s latest antics is stark. Again, some segments of society find these regulatory changes extremely troubling, but here the government are apparently happy to enforce an unwanted form of parity without so much as a single minute of debate.
So it seems obvious that an intrinsic desire for parity is not the true driver of this change. Silencing critics by squashing the butterfly of internet freedom however does appear to be much more consistent with the way Singapore has been ruled since independence. The obvious inference to draw is that this – not parity – is the driving force behind the new licensing regime.