Many have speculated about what is the true intent of the Singapore government’s recently announced new licensing regime for news websites. We of course got some insight from Minister Yaacob Ibrahim’s statement about the need for Singaporeans to read the “right” thing online. More important, but less widely reported, was his definition of what the “right” things might be. A more complete quote of what he said to the BBC is:
“We want to protect the interest of the ordinary Singaporean. As long as they go online to read the news I think it’s important to make sure that they read the ‘right thing’, insofar as if there’s an event yesterday it is reported accurately.”
MDA appear to have re-iterated the point on accuracy and good intent in their emailed response to Mr Ngerng who blogs at The Hearth Truths. They wrote inter alia
“Nowhere do the guidelines state that news sites cannot question or highlight the shortcomings of government policies, as long as the assessments are well-intentioned, and not based on factual inaccuracies with the intention to mislead the public”
The obvious issue emerging from both these quotes is the question of legislating or regulating for accuracy, as well as whether an article is “well-intentioned”. There does not appear to be any objective means by which the MDA intends to assess any given “Singapore news programme” for accuracy or good intention before exercising their power to issue a take down notice. To see why legislating in these terms is a very short step from outright censorship, we only need to look briefly at the history of state censorship of print media in Singapore. Since MDA has oft-repeated their intent to seek parity between print and online media, the government’s stance on accuracy and intent in the context of silencing critics in the print media is particularly enlightening.
I’m sure most readers are familiar with “mr brown” – real name Lee Kin Mun – who is a prominent blogger, tweeter and general internet pioneer in Singapore. But mr brown in the past has not just enjoyed online fame – I’m sure many are also aware he used to write a column for Today newspaper – until he penned a satirical and stinging critique of the ruling party in June 2006 titled “Singaporeans are fed, up with progress“. The government of the day – under the leadership of Lee Hsien Loong – were extremely displeased with the article, making assertions that it contained inaccuracies but also proceeding to denounce it in extremely strong terms. mr brown was suspended from writing his column within a week and I believe has never returned to the pages of Today newspaper. Let us be clear that the outcome of this episode was that mr brown’s voice – critical of the government – was silenced from the pages of the mainstream media. In light of MCA’s stated intent to regulate websites along the lines of accuracy and good intent, as well as on a par with print media, it is interesting to note the extreme terms in which the government framed mr brown’s criticism in the lead up to and aftermath of his suspension.
Printed on the first working day following publication of mr brown’s article, MICA wrote to Today, denouncing mr brown for “distorting the truth” and asserting that he “poured sarcasm on many issues”.
“mr brown is entitled to his views. But opinions which are widely circulated in a regular column in a serious newspaper should meet higher standards. Instead of a diatribe mr brown should offer constructive criticism and alternatives. And he should come out from behind his pseudonym to defend his views openly.
It is not the role of journalists or newspapers in Singapore to champion issues, or campaign for or against the Government. If a columnist presents himself as a non-political observer, while exploiting his access to the mass media to undermine the Government’s standing with the electorate, then he is no longer a constructive critic, but a partisan player in politics.”
No less than PM LHL himself apparently followed up on this, stating “mr brown had hit out wildly at the Government and in a very mocking tone” and as such the government had to respond, otherwise “untruths would be repeated and eventually treated as facts”.
In the context of regulation versus censorship, this is where the contention will surely arise. It is not hard to imagine MDA writing to a blogger or news website using similar language as when they wrote to Today in response to mr brown. If the bar is set as low as “pouring sarcasm”, MDA will have their hands full. If MDA are waiting for an online commentator to “hit out wildly at the government and in a very mocking tone” before issuing take down notices, then still – they are likely to be busy. If “diatribe” in lieu of “constructive criticism” is deemed to not meet MDA standards of good intent, I fear our regulators will be overwhelmed with complaints. Via all these avenues – and no doubt more exist – just as the critical voice of mr brown was removed from the pages of Today, so the critical voices of many contributors are liable to be removed from the pages of Yahoo! and presumably also TOC and TRE in the future. For all of these reasons, it seems clear that the new regulations will have a silencing effect on Singapore’s online contributors.
It is important to re-iterate that what mr brown wrote in 2006 was in fact not particularly unreasonable. The freedom to engage in stinging or harsh criticisms of government failings are essential to democracy and good governance. Inaccuracies can ordinarily be corrected or apologised for – if in fact they can objectively be shown to exist. Whilst most bloggers do not have the wit of mr brown, equally scathing criticism of the government is as common online in 2013 as mr brown’s article was groundbreaking in 2006. If the government – as they state – seeks to hold online contributors to the standard that they held print media in the form of Today newspaper in 2006 then a lot of take down notices will be issued, and a lot of performance bonds forfeited between now and the next general election. It is this – and the fact that it embodies nothing less than government censorship of criticism – that underpins many of the concerns around MDA’s new licensing regime.