KESHA WEST, PRESENTER: Since independence, Singapore has had a reputation of placing harsh restrictions on its media. But over the past decade the Internet has given those with an alternative view an avenue to challenge and even criticise the government.
The ruling People's Action Party has done little to assert its control over political discourse on the web. But the country's media regulators have recently imposed new licensing requirements for on-line news web sites - a move that's sparked a rare mass protest.
Girish Sawlani (phonetic) reports.
(Extract from Tom Petty song - I Won't Back Down)
GIRISH SAWLANI: Almost immune to mass demonstrations or demonstrations of any sort, it can only take something drastic to force more than 2,000 Singaporeans to come out in protest. This gathering at Speaker's Corner last month came after the government announced a new licensing regime aimed at regulating news content on the web.
PROTESTER: Thatís why you are here, because that day has come, those fathers of internet regulation!
(Sound of people clapping)
GIRISH SAWLANI: Under the new licensing rules, news web sites will have to put up a $50,000 performance bond and risk forfeiting it if published material breaches the media authority's standards. The bond only applies to sites which:
(Extract of New Licensing Framework from Media Development Authority, Singapore)
- publish at least one article a week on local news and current affairs over a two-month period.
The sites will also need to have
- 50,000 individual visitors from Singapore every month over two months.
YAACOB IBRAHIM, SINGAPORE COMMS AND INFORMATION MINISTER: Itís important for us to put a regulatory framework which is as light as possible to ensure that those sites coming on boards to report on the Singapore news have to conform to certain minimum standards as far as we are concerned. And we think itís not as onerous as whatís been made up by some people online.
HOWARD LEE, DEPUTY CHIEF EDITOR, THE ONLINE CITIZEN: I think the general sentiment is that Singaporeans are concerned. We do recognise that not all Singaporeans are aware of the full implications of this. At the end of the day this regulation is really an infringement on the constitutional rights.
GIRISH SAWLANI: Howard Lee is the deputy chief editor of the Online Citizen arguably Singapore's most popular independent community news website. He also helped initiate the Free My Internet campaign aimed at sending a strong message to the government to keep its hands off the web.
HOWARD LEE: What it does allow anyone to do, any politician who sees fit to basically come in and say okay, today TOC (The Online Citizen) and (inaudible), we are regulated and we can't fork out the $50,000 they requested straightaway. It does affect our operation.
GIRISH SAWLANI: In 2011, media regulators classified his web site as a political organisation, which meant The Online Citizen was barred from receiving any funding from foreign courses. Singapore's media development authority says The Online Citizen and other sites like it will not be affected by the new rules. In agreement is government MP Vikram Nair, who's also a member of the Communications Ministryís parliamentary committees.
VIKRAM NAIR, GOVERNMENT MEMBER OF PARLIAMENT: A lot of these blogs what they do is provide commentary, they don't actually report on the news. So most of them probably wouldn't be captured on that ground. Secondly from what I understand is a lot of them don't meet the requirement of having the 50,000 unique Singapore users?
(Extract from Tom Petty song - I Won't Back Down)
GIRISH SAWLANI: While it's been almost a month since the new licensing rules came into force, scepticism remains.
HOWARD LEE: The response to our request whether TOC will not be regulated yet. And that is a very big yet.
GIRISH SAWLANI: But some analysts say such a reaction may be premature.
EUGENE TON, SINGAPORE MANAGEMENT UNIVERSITY: My personal view is that there perhaps has been some overreaction on the part of the online world. I think, you know, the way I look at it, it is very difficult for the government to move away from a light touch regime.
GIRISH SAWLANI: Eugene Tan is an expert in Singaporean law and a nominated member of Parliament appointed by the President. Even so, he says the online community's concerns are legitimate.
EUGENE TON: One is that there was no consultation. This is where they feel that there are sinister motives behind. The government explained that the no consultation was simply because it wasn't a major change in the regulatory regime.
VIKRAM NAIR: I don't think criticism of the government would be diminished in any way. If you look at the criticism that's been surfacing about this Bill alone, debate and online discussion is still pretty free and open.
GIRISH SAWLANI: Since 1996 there has only been one video deemed to incite racial hatred that was ordered to be taken offline while 26 other online articles considered too sexual in nature were issued with takedown notices from 1996 to 2011.
But historically the Singaporean government has had a reputation for using defamation laws to stifle its critics it who include journalists and opposition politicians. It's for this reason that Singapore's online community is vowing to keep up the pressure.
HOWARD LEE: One of the key things we will be going out with is to educate the public about what this regulation is about and how it does impact them.
EUGENE TON: The Internet is the lifeblood of Singapore's economy. We're increasingly being plugged into the global network. I think it would do Singapore a lot of damage if we are seen to be curtailing legitimate public discourse.