Channel NewsAsia quoted Communications and Information Minister Yaacob Ibrahim saying: “It’s about making sure that our regulatory framework is consistent — that’s the most important thing. At the moment, whether we like it or not, Singaporeans are receiving news both from mainstream media and online sites.
“Our mainstream media are subjected to rules, you know… Why shouldn’t the online media be part of that regulatory framework?
“I don’t see this as a clamping down, if anything, it is regularising what is already happening on the Internet and (making sure) that they are on par with our mainstream media.”
It sounds seductively rational, especially when online media are steadily becoming important. Why should offline be regulated and online not?
But hold on a minute: There is more than one way to achieve parity. What about not licensing both? Instead of imposing new regulatory conditions on online media, why not dismantle the straitjackets on offline media?
You’d notice that the government is silent on this.
The issue is therefore far broader than it first appears. This isn’t just a debate about whether or how to license and regulate news websites. It should be about why we even assume that news dissemination on any platform must be regulated at all.
No doubt, the government will press the usual fear buttons, like they have in this announcement. The Media Development Authority (MDA), for example, has tried to justify the new rules by waving concerns such as “soliciting for prostitution” and undermining “racial and religious harmony”. It will, if it has not already, trot out a few examples in recent years of people saying hurtful things against other ethnic, religious or national groups. But we should see these instances in perspective. How often do they occur? Have not others online called them out? These recent instances do not constitute convincing justification for more regulation; the isolated cases aren’t enough to make anyone think an epidemic of abusive speech is upon us, with no other defence but state control.
The best defence a community has against irresponsible speech is to firstly acquire an immunity to it and secondly for many individuals to feel empowered to speak up against it. Government playing nanny again is the surest way to thwart this maturing process. A government that puts on iron gloves disempowers citizens from doing their bit.
Can we believe those in government don’t know this? That’s hard to believe. Thus one cannot shake off the feeling that the latest move is at least partially motivated by other urges, and one that comes foremost to mind is that of wanting to acquire the tools of control over political speech — controls useful some day in the future.
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A relatively new scarecrow being held up is that of “going against good taste”, a frightfully broad and subjective term.
Some may think it fairly obvious where such a line may lie, but that’s only because they have the conceit to assume that their views are universal. Take the image at the top and the one below for example. It’s not hard to imagine some people shouting that they’re too shocking — remember the outcry from diehard conservatives when Abercrombie and Fitch had its massive hoarding on Orchard Road? — while others would say they’re fine, beautiful even. I would not want our government to be the arbiter of taste. If it’s my site, I’ll be the judge.
I understand that at the press conference, the MDA used an instance of online circulation of grisly pictures of accident victims as an example of the kind of “bad taste” it wants to stop.
Well then, I wonder what it has to say to BBC about this news story (http://www.bbc.co.uk/news/world-middle-east-22698358) embedded within which is a 3-minute 55-second video report showing several dead and bloodied Syrians killed in the ongoing civil war.
Or this one from the Second World War:
The line between “legit” news and gratuitous sensationalism is not as clear as we think. And since Singaporeans’ trust in this government sinks lower by the day, there is a widespread feeling that they will use the new rules in a biased manner.
Imagine for example, one day, an ordnance storage facility explodes and there are many fatalities. What if there’s a controversy over the true number of victims, with someone alleging a cover up? Suppose a crucial piece of evidence is a video recording showing more bodies on the ground than the number released by the authorities. Do you think the government will hesitate to ban the circulation of the video on “bad taste” grounds?
Or if there’s an incident on the streets after which police brutality is alleged, and key pieces of evidence are videos or photographs of awfully beaten corpses. You can’t even claim the families object to the release of the pictures because they too want a proper appreciation of the brutality and an accounting of it. Does anybody want to bet the government will hold themselves back from banning circulation of these images on ground of “taste”? Which better serves the public interest? A ban or their circulation?
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The new rules require licensed media to comply within 24 hours with MDA’s directions to remove content. A $50,000 performance bond that has to be put up as a condition of the licence is obviously meant to make it very painful to defy MDA’s orders. It is not yet clear what avenues will exist for a news website to contest and reverse the MDA’s demand, but looking at other laws this government has created to curtail various freedoms, it is going to look as if the government will be prosecutor, judge and jury.
Initially, only ten “news sites” have been named as subject to licensing. All except Yahoo News are websites belonging to Singapore Press Holdings and Mediacorp. However, there is every expectation that this is just the thin end of the wedge. The intended rules are written in such a way that they can easily encompass any popular citizen-journalism website.
MDA’s announcement said that the two criteria for inclusion within the ambit of the licensing scheme are:
1. report an average of at least one article per week on Singapore’s news and current affairs over a period of two months, and
2. are visited by at least 50,000 unique IP addresses from Singapore each month over a period of two months.
MDA also made clear that even websites based abroad may well be asked to submit to licensing, though how exactly they will do this is as yet unclear.
Naturally, much discussion out there will focus on the details of the regulatory scheme and what impact it will have on online media. But as I said at the top, the principal question that first needs to be dealt with is: Why regulate any media at all?
There is no case to thicken regulation of online news media. If parity is the aim, then deregulate offline media.