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Bloggers stage protest, call on new MDA rules to be withdrawn

SINGAPORE – A group of bloggers expressed deep-seated concerns over the newly introduced licensing regime for news sites at the Free My Internet protest on Saturday, despite the Government’s recent assurances that it maintains a “light touch” approach to the Internet and the new rules would not limit public discourse.

SINGAPORE – A group of bloggers expressed deep-seated concerns over the newly introduced licensing regime for news sites at the Free My Internet protest on Saturday, despite the Government’s recent assurances that it maintains a “light touch” approach to the Internet and the new rules would not limit public discourse.

The 15 speakers at the three-hour long protest at Hong Lim Park called on the Government to withdraw the new rules, which kicked in on June 1.

Key among the bloggers’ concerns was that future governments might not abide by the present Government’s recent stand that criticism of government policies will be allowed. Minister for Communications and Information Yaacob Ibrahim had said on Monday that news reports and comments critical of government would not be targeted under the new regime, as long as they are accurate and not misleading.

This puts “too much trust in the regulators”, according to blogger Visakan Veerasamy. “Even if they make perfect decisions, who’s to say that future politicians won’t exploit the flimsiness of this policy? How can we be sure that such authority won’t be abused? The best medicine is self-government.”

He likened it to parents teaching their children how to use the Internet responsibly, instead of through punitive measures.

Many speakers also criticised the broad definition of what constitutes a news website, which the Media Development Authority had given as “any programme containing any news, intelligence, report of occurrence, or any matter of public interest, about any social, economic, political, cultural, artistic, sporting, scientific or any other aspect of Singapore in any language”.

Former Nominated Member of Parliament Siew Kum Hong, who sent a message to be read out at the protest as he is overseas, felt that despite Dr Yaacob’s assurances, they have not been written into the regulation, thus creating more uncertainty.

“The government refuses to put it into law, that non-commercial sites will never be regulated... What isn’t said speaks louder,” he said in the message, which was read out by Publichouse.sg founder Andrew Loh.

The MDA’s new regime affects websites which have 50,000 unique visitors from Singapore each month over a period of two months and publish an average of at least one article a week on “Singapore’s news and current affairs” over the same period. Operators of these news sites will be given 24 hours to remove content deemed objectionable by the MDA, and are also required to put up a “performance bond” of S$50,000.

The 15 speakers at the protest, organised by a group of bloggers and socio-political websites called Free My Internet, were personal bloggers, or writers for socio-political sites or netizens. They include Mr Choo Zheng Xi from The Online Citizen, Mr Ravi Philemon, and Mr Richard Wan from TREmeritus.

Some speakers also questioned why MDA failed to present the new rules in Parliament, before they took effect.

Mr Choo, who is co-founder of The Online Citizen, and also a lawyer, said: “This isn’t a story of the Internet. It is a story of arbitrariness, of circumventing the legislative process. Constitution matters, it is the highest order of the land.” He pointed out that the Government “did not even bother” to put the new regime before Singapore’s elected Members of Parliament to deliberate, but was included as a subsidiary legislation instead.

He added that the vagueness of the regulation makes it a bad law. “The rule of law matters, that laws have to be applied equally, whether you are a minister or hawker. For this principle to be applied, it has to be passed, it has to be clear. It is too broad to be a good law.”

Those involved in Saturday’s protest said they are aiming to create more awareness and undertake more public education, as well as lobby Members of Parliament about the new regime.

In a statement sent last night, the Free My Internet group said: “In the weeks ahead, the group will roll out material and programmes to educate members of the public, it said. It also does not rule out a dialogue with the government on how de-regulating the media environment can best be done to benefit Singaporeans.”

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