MDA's announcement creates an online storm.

Singapore’s Tweaked Online Licenses Show Naivety

MDA's announcement creates an online storm.
MDA’s announcement creates an online storm.

The Media Development Authority announced new guidelines that will require additional licensing for current affairs orientated sites with a large Singapore viewership. I think it is important for those who are interested in this change of rules to read the factsheet verbatim from MDA’s site. Context is important, please do click on that link and read before continuing.

There is one very clear message that can be read from MDA’s statement. Online news platforms have arrived. Sufficient proportions of Singaporeans are utilizing online platforms to read and respond to local affairs. Note that MDA’s calls this move one that brings online content on par with the traditional press. My thoughts will be focused on this area.



Singapore’s Internet Code of Practice

I am aware that many Singaporean bloggers and readers have responded with heavy criticism. I can see where this is stemming from but it will be out of my depth to term this move as censorship. Even if it is censorship, not all forms of censorship is bad. The term itself is subjective to social norms. Censorship can range from politics, racism, radicalism to even child pornography. Obviously some forms of censorship is needed but how much and to what extent varies from individual to individual. Let us take a closer look at this:


3. The new Licence provides greater clarity on prevailing requirements within the Class Licence and Internet Code of Practice, and explains what MDA would consider “prohibited content” in the existing Internet Code of Practice, e.g. content that undermines racial or religious harmony. As the sites are already subject to these requirements, no change in content standards is expected to result. The Licence also makes it clear that online news sites are expected to comply within 24 hours to MDA’s directions to remove content that is found to be in breach of content standards. The only other additional requirement is that online news sites are required to put up a performance bond like all other individually-licensed broadcasters, and the sum of $50,000 is consistent with that required of niche TV broadcasters.


All sites, including the one you are reading now, is subject to the Internet Code of Practice. The preceding link is a three page PDF from MDA’s site. It’s a short guideline, read it. It is clear that article is targeted squarely at upholding social norms on sexuality. Pornography and any sexually explicit materials are banned (Point 4.2a to 4.2d). Point 4.2e prohibits LBGT which is not accepted in the country. While this may irk some, it is not surprising considering how conservative our country is. This issue is contentious even in more liberal countries. Point 4.2f is on cruelty and violence. This one is an easy pass. The final point (4.2g) covers ethnic, racial and religious harmony. I think most Singaporeans both offline and online will accept all the points without batting an eyelid. There is little connection to politics here. Even if there is, we would not want sexual, ethnic, racial or religious issues to creep into politics both online and offline.



Content Licensing

The Internet Code of Practice is not an issue. However, some sites will be moved from this to one that is apparently stricter. They will fall under the Broadcasting Act. This article is nine pages long and again you should read before reacting. The document covers both Internet Service Providers and Content Providers. What we are interested is on Content Providers which begins at Point 3 on Page 5. The article is worded carefully and is linked to more general documents such as general laws and statutes. I will not continue linking all of them. The message is clear, MDA wants popular online sites to operate under the same guidelines traditional news agencies.


The truth is none of these will really affect content providers.


The truth is none of these will really affect content providers. This entire storm was unnecessary caused by a poor PR move by MDA. Online bloggers already knew they could be hauled up for posting articles or even comments that they could not back factually. Responsible journalism and accurate reporting must be upheld no matter the stature of the publisher.

Nonetheless, there are some who will be affected. These are sites that I followed a few years ago. I will not name them but the content they generate is pathetically one sided. As much as the traditional media is seen by many to be pro government, these same sites were so blatantly anti government some of their content were highly questionable.

There are a few viewpoints to this issue. Some believe that having two extreme sides will even out the score. Some believe that we should actively prevent such ends from occurring. Others believe in natural selection, citing that extreme ends will never be supported by the mainstream. There is no right or wrong short run answer to this. We can only tell with time.



Wrong Mindset

However, there is one fair conclusion that we can arrive at. MDA has misunderstood online platforms. Choosing to bring online sites under the same jurisdictions as traditional media shows a complete misunderstanding of the issue. This is not about censorship, this is about perspective and management.


By using a one rule fits all, it shows naivety and inability to grasp the nuanced differences.


Online media operates and functions very differently from traditional media in many ways from procurement to editing and publishing. Adopting a one-rule-fits-all method shows naivety and inability to grasp the nuanced differences. They have to be treated separately. Pushing for unified legislation will yield little benefit to even the lawmakers in the long run.

Most disagreements are caused by misunderstandings and this is painfully apparent in this issue. One can only hope that our nation, both its leaders and citizens, will mature and understand how to utilize and govern new platforms. Quick adaptation is always the key to survival. The only difference today is that the required pace of adaptation has been severely hastened.

We cannot afford to fall behind.



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