MDA’s actions raise doubts about its capacity as media authority

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The FreeMyInternet group expresses our grave concerns about the Media Development Authority’s (MDA) ability to serve as an effective regulator and developer of the Internet space in Singapore.This inability has been amplified by recent incidents involving the registration of local news websites The Independent Singapore (TISG) and Breakfast Network (BN). In particular, we feel that MDA’s actions in these two cases are advised by little more than paranoia of “foreign funding”. Unfortunately, such actions can only dampen, rather than encourage, the growth of the online space.

In addition, MDA’s actions also belie a rather poor understanding of how the Internet works, and this is cause for concern for an agency that professes to be the regulator for the online media environment.

Foreign funding obsession

For both TISG and BN, MDA has exhibited excessive concerns about these sites being funded by foreign entities. Despite TISG and BN having indicated publicly that they do not intend to seek funding from foreign sources, MDA proceeded to use this as a point for insisting that the website owners register. This was made the most apparent in its latest statement regarding BN, where MDA has maintained, on three separate occasions within one statement that the registration was due to the possibility of foreign funding.At no point in time did MDA furnish proof, beyond mere suspicion, that TISG and BN intend to seek foreign funding.

This blind and as yet unsubstantiated fear of foreign funding would be less onerous if not for its effect on causing unnecessary administrative difficulties to media owners. Both TISG and BN has made public that their interaction with MDA on their registration process was ambiguous and unnecessarily complex. Indeed, as human rights group Maruah has indicated:

“The forms published by Breakfast Network also show that MDA has asked them, if not The Independent, to identify every person who has provided funding to them, as well as every subscriber and advertiser who contributes 5 per cent or more of their subscription or advertising revenue. As we stated previously, these requirements, in particular the former, are overly intrusive and go far beyond what is necessary to satisfy the stated objective of preventing foreign influence over the media.”

MDA’s obsession with seeing foreign funding without proof of its existence is unhealthy, as it automatically casts a suspicious glow on any home-grown website that seeks to find a footing in Singapore. In contrast, MDA has no such qualms when it sought to register Yahoo Singapore, which is an American-owned entity. This smacks of double standards, and a lack of clarity in what MDA hopes to achieve by registering websites.

Regulating what they do not understand

We also note MDA’s inability to grasp the realities of how online media functions. MDA’s latest insistence that BN shuts down its Facebook page and Twitter feed, simply because they are supposedly part of Breakfast Network Pte Ltd, and despite Ms Henson having wound up her company, is infuriating as it is perplexing. It suggests that MDA has no idea what social media is about.A Facebook page or Twitter feed, in its simplest form, is owned and run by an individual, even if it has different administrators. Indeed, a number of our political leaders employ such a structure to manage their social media accounts, some with a reach far exceeding BN’s. Would MDA also require them to register a company for these social media channels and complete the registration process, or cease and desist immediately?

MDA’s requirement for websites to disclose all editors, pro-bono or otherwise, compounds their lack of understanding about how the online community works. In its infancy, a new site would rely on many contributors, including those serving editorial functions. It should be sufficient for the editor-in-chief to assume full responsibility for the work of these pro-bono helpers. MDA’s failure to understand such pro-bono arrangements suggests that they have merely transplanted the regulatory framework from mainstream media to online media, and conveniently ignored the unique workings of an online community that is based not on money terms, but on good will.

Therefore, by enforcing such onerous requirements, MDA has done little more than make things difficult for those seeking to share information online. To be more precise, only online entities that have or are willing to set aside resources to manage such administrative details would be able to survive the risk of complete closure.

Regulator a cause of concern

It is hence clear that MDA is unable to comprehend, much less regulate, the online sphere. Nevertheless, this is not the first instance of MDA’s lacks. From its preposition of an Internet Code of Conduct, to the revisions of the Broadcasting Act in June 2013, and now to the actual implementation of the amended regulations, MDA has exhibited uncertainty, opacity and lack of comprehension of what it hopes to regulate.

Already, its action has caused the closing of one website, which has thus far done nothing more than provide fair and responsible commentary and coverage of news in Singapore, without the slightest hint of foreign support.

This anti-development does not bode well for those who seek to make their livelihood through similar sites, when they can almost be assured that all they will face are ambiguous rules as stumbling blocks – a far cry from MDA’s stated role as a media developer.

Indeed, MDA’s actions against TISG and BN will only further exacerbate public suspicion about what it hopes to achieve with these regulations. The basis of the amended Broadcasting Act, as touted by MDA, was to bring online media on the same regulatory footing as mainstream media. However, we have already seen that in terms of resources, such onerous regulatory protocols actually work unfairly against online media. Would the public not think that MDA’s intention is to support mainstream media by implementing a regulatory framework that is biased against the resources available to online media owners?

Unless MDA is able to provide satisfactory answers to all the issues that these two recent episodes have generated, the future of Singapore’s online space remains in jeopardy from being regulated by those who do not appear to know what they are doing, and whose intentions remain unknown.

MDA’s run-in with TISG and BN is a dismal warning that the agency has much more to learn before it should even flex its regulatory arm with online media. Greater clarity is needed in the amended Broadcasting Act, the root cause of this latest mishap.

As such, the FreeMyInternet group calls for the cessation of all regulatory activities related to the Broadcasting Act, until a proper and adequate revision of the Act itself has been conducted. MDA owes this to all Singaporeans who seek fairness and clarity from those who seek to govern the information they obtain online.

About FreeMyInternet

The FreeMyInternet movement was founded by a collective of bloggers who are against the licensing requirements imposed by the Singapore government on 1 June 2013, which requires online news sites to put up a performance bond of S$50,000 and comply within 24 hours to remove content that is found to be in breach of content standards. The group believes this to be an attempt at censorship and an infringement on the rights of Singaporeans to access information online and calls for a withdrawal of this licensing regime.