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New regime will not limit public discourse: Yaacob

SINGAPORE — News reports and comments that are critical of government policies will not be targeted under the new licensing regime for news sites, as long as they are factual and not misleading, said Minister for Communications and Information Yaacob Ibrahim yesterday.

SINGAPORE — News reports and comments that are critical of government policies will not be targeted under the new licensing regime for news sites, as long as they are factual and not misleading, said Minister for Communications and Information Yaacob Ibrahim yesterday.

In his most extensive reply thus far on numerous concerns raised by some, including fears that the Media Development Authority’s move last week could be “the first step” towards tighter regulation of the Internet, Dr Yaacob stressed that the Government’s “light touch” approach has not changed. “Our approach has been, and remains, that the Internet is not exempt from the rules of society,” he added.

Dr Yaacob also sought to clarify the guidelines on restricted content. “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,” he said.

On the perception among many in cyberspace that the new licensing regime is an attempt to limit public discourse, Dr Yaacob felt that time would prove this view wrong. “I expect that the sites will continue to operate as before,” he said. “In fact, I hope that the activists who are today making this far-fetched claim will be honest enough to admit it when the time comes.”

Yesterday was the second time in the space of a few days that Dr Yaacob had moved to address concerns over the new licensing scheme. Last Friday, he took to Facebook to address the online backlash , but many within the online community were not convinced, and a group of bloggers said they would be organising a protest on Saturday against the new requirements.

The debate on the new requirements carried on last night, when Acting Manpower Minister Tan Chuan-Jin appeared as a guest on Channel NewsAsia’s Talking Point programme and fielded phone-in questions from several callers.

The new licensing regime, which kicked in last Saturday, affects websites which have “significant reach” — defined as having 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. If they defy the order to apply for a licence, they can be fined up to S$200,000 or jailed up to three years or both.

 

Deregulate mainstream media? Not much of a real alternative, said Dr Yaacob

 

Speaking to reporters yesterday, Dr Yaacob said the MDA has been “restrained” in directing sites to take-down content. Since the class licence scheme came into effect in 1996, a take-down notice has been issued 24 times — once for religiously-offensive content concerning the “Innocence of Muslims” video last year, and the rest for prohibited content such as pornography and advertisements solicting for sex or sex chats.

The Minister also explained why the Government had created a new regime, even though existing rules could be used to deal with perpetrators of explicit or racist content. Dr Yaacob put this down to a “stronger onus” on the individual licensee to report responsibly and be aware of his legal obligations. “Going by the reactions of some Internet content providers, it would appear that not all of them are fully aware of the content standards in the class licence,” he added. “This is not a major problem if they are not producing news content. But it should be a concern if, for something as important as news, they are not even aware what the baseline content standards are.”

Dr Yaacob also dismissed links charges by some in the online community that the licensing regime was drawn up after an Internet code of conduct was rejected by netizens. The code of conduct, which was first mooted in late 2011, was aimed at promoting a safer and more civil Internet environment, whereas the new licensing framework is “directed at bringing regulatory parity to news platforms”, he said.

As to suggestions by some that an alternative to achieving parity — deregulating mainstream media — be considered instead, Dr Yaacob felt this was “not much of a real alternative”. He brought up the example of New Zealand, which “has problems” with its self-regulatory system for traditional media, and has now recognised the need for a regulator to oversee both traditional and online media. “The bottom line is that they now see that even the media can operate contrary to the public interest, and they need a regulator to ensure that this does not happen,” he said.

On why there was no public consultation on the change, Dr Yaacob explained that this was because there was no “fundamental shift in policy approach” — the approach to regulating the Internet remains a “light-touch” one, he added. Wide public consultation will take place when a new policy direction, such as the possibility of regulating some overseas broadcasters targeting the Singapore market, is taken, he said.

Asked if public communication on the change could have been done better, Dr Yaacob said: “At the end of the day, anything could have been done better, but I want the online community to understand this is not an attempt to clamp down on anybody. It’s really to ensure that those in the business of reporting news do so responsibly.”

In a statement yesterday, Free My Internet, a group of sociopolitical websites and bloggers formed to protest against these new regulations, took issue with the lack of public consultation.

“The burden is on the Government to consult the public and Parliament before making sweeping changes that impact our constitutional freedoms. It is incorrect for Dr Yaacob to turn the tables on the people of Singapore by placing the burden on them to prove that this piece of legislation will be mis-applied,” it said.

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