Sunday, March 23, 2014

MDA Licensing Framework: A sad move for active citizenry in Singapore? (4th December 2013)

Our Singapore Happenings 
Wednesday, 4th December 2013 

MDA Licensing Framework - A sad move for active citizenry in Singapore? 

              From 1 June 2013, under the new MDA licensing framework, sites that: 
I) Report an average of at least one article per week on Singapore 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 the period of two months may be required to be individually licensed. So far, 10 websites have been identified to be licensed. 9 of which belongs to either Mediacorp or Singapore Press Holdings with the other being Yahoo! Singapore. By being agreed to be licensed, they will have to remove any content which is in breach of content standards within 24 hours. In addition, these sites are required to post a performance bond of $50000; of which may be forfeited if content that breached content standards are not taken down within 24 hours. There are a few main contentious points with regards to this announcement. 

Firstly, the nature of announcement is one that is surprising to many as there were no prior consultation done with industry stakeholders and the public on the move. The new policy was also not discussed with Members of Parliament(MPs) to decide if this new change is really necessary for the country. The announcement also took many by surprise including the Big 4- Facebook, Google, Yahoo! and EBay which expressed their reservations to the minister. The government could have taken time to consult key industry players with regards to the move as this has implications to their business and/or with the parliament to hear the views of MPs on whether this is necessary as this policy shift will inevitably affect what every Singaporean reads, which is of national concern. The consultation may have led to a policy that is more measured and balanced. 

Secondly, if you look at the terms of the scheme as written above, it can be said to be broad and somewhat vague. What is defined as 'Singapore news' is extremely broad as quoted: '“Singapore news programme” is any programme (whether or not the programme is presenter-based and whether or not the programme is provided by a third party) 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 (whether paid or free and whether at regular interval or otherwise) but does not include any programme produced by or on behalf of the Government.' Thus almost everything related to Singapore can be considered as Singapore news. In addition, the announcement mentioned that by agreeing to be licensed, any content that breached content standards will be asked to be taken down. Defining content standards, the ministry stated that content should 'not go against public interest, public order, national harmony and/or offend against good taste or decency'. The definition of content standards are also somewhat vague as it is hard to define what it means to 'go against public interest', leaving editors writing these articles guessing what constitutes a breach.

Thirdly, the government now is essentially taking the stance that what's not on 'offline' should also not be on 'online' as can be seen in its rationale for this new policy - to achieve parity between online and offline media. Well is it true? Rationally I would think so. But is there a space and role that online media can play that is different from offline media? I think there is. The online media can well be a place where independent views and/or unique perspectives on issues be presented and discussed upon. This is something that offline media may not be able to present as these independent individuals are either doing such commentaries pro bono or even if they go offline may not survive the competition from other Mainstream Media. But going online gives them the space for such commentaries to happen. With this new licensing scheme in place, there will be 2 effects that may happen: 
1) It may stifle the vibrancy of the Singapore media scene as it prevents up and coming local news enterprise such as Breakfast Network from growing as they know that once they hit the magic number of 50,000 unique IP addresses visit per month, they may be asked to be licensed needing to pay the $50,000 performance bond. This figure is no small sum and some of these news enterprise may just decide that it's not sustainable and decide to close down. It will be a lose to the Singapore media scene as it is one less voice.
2) Those that are already licensed under the scheme may practice self-censorship on behalf of the government. As mentioned, what constitutes a breach of content standards is vague and there are grey areas. Of course, news inciting racial or religious disharmony should be asked to be taken down. But will views published that differ from the government's official stance be asked to be taken down as well? That's still a question mark. In general, editors may start to err on the safe side as their performance bond is at stake. Is that really healthy? 

Finally, this is seen by some as a move by the government to close in on the net. And from the government perspective, it is understandable why. It would be frustrating to have people criticising every policy that is rolled out and having all that hatred and angst coming your way when your policies are genuinely meant to aid the people. The need to respond to such angst and opposing views can be downright draining and counter-productive. And these angst played up by these online news sites may also negatively influence the views of the mass public. Thus, I would say it is completely understandable.
But, are all views on the internet bad and counterproductive? There is evident extremism on the net but are all online news sites like this? I don't think so. I believe that there are good news sites out there which gives mature, alternative viewpoints to problems on hand. Of course, websites offering extremism viewpoints need to stop as it does not bring us forward as a society but rather make people angry and upset about the status quo. 

In the short run, it may be easy to impose a blanket licensing framework for all these news sites. But do we want to come to a point in the long run where we become a non questioning and critical society where we take whatever that comes our way? Or do we have to cultivate a society where we are mature enough to critically question policies that are proposed by the government and offer productive and feasible counter solutions to issues that the government can take up? If we can progress to such a stage where we are maturely critical, I am sure we can decide for ourselves what's a good read and not be swayed by extremist viewpoints on the net. If we want active citizenry where the citizens literally work hand in hand with the government to make things happen, then I would say the first step would be to allow alternative rationale views online to get people thinking and questioning. Allow the freedom for people to choose and decide what they want to read and allow those who want to share share freely. 

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