The future of Singapore’s media regulation – over-reaching, over-powered, and without legal oversight

2019

By: Howard Lee

The latest announcement by the Minister for Communication and Information, Yaacob Ibrahim about impending changes to the Films Act and Broadcasting Act should have caused much concern for us, but hardly an eyebrow appears to have been raised.

There is one very simple reason for this. The Minister pointed out that the issue was with convergence of platforms, that “anyone can be a film-maker” if they have access to a mobile phone, and pointed out the use of Youtube as a broadcasting platform.

Such changes are, of course, hardly news to us, so what is more interesting is MCI’s take on how regulation should respond to this change. Any revision would go one of two ways. The first is to head towards enabling the sector. The merging of the media and infocomm regulatory functions within the government actually offers excellent opportunities for this.

The World Wide Web has opened up a lot of possibilities for a vibrant media sector, where a massive pool of content creators offer competition to established media players from the grassroots level. Platforms like Youtube have readily tapped into this pool, allowing content creators to monetise their own unique channels as they reach out to their own niche subscribers. To the extent that the platform saw fit to have its own FanFest speaks much about the very different apparatus that the new media environment works in.

To enable such an environment to grow, you need to have a flexible approach. You need to be thick-skinned enough to understand that not all content suits everyone, nor might it please anyone. Justin Bieber, talent-spotted on Youtube, has his fair share of fans and haters. Such is the nature of the Web, and what makes it unique, powerful and user-enabled.

The Minister’s preposition that there are some “content standards” runs against this reality of the Web. It is as good as saying that you do not deserve to be online unless you fulfil a certain fixed criterion – for instance, you must be a Justin Bieber, or you don’t deserve a place online.

As such, Minister’s comments suggest that the new regulations might actually go in the opposite direction, away from nurturing the growth of a vibrant sector. The very idea of conflating “content” with “platform” flies in the face of the Web.

Technological convergence is here to stay, but whether we take it forward or backward demonstrates how well we understand this new environment and if we can adapt to it.

We should seriously ask if the Ministry of Communication and Information even understands convergence, much less the platform it speaks of.

Even more concerning is the Minister stringing another issue into the same dialogue – cyber security. Perhaps the Minister believes that the next Youtube sensation from Singapore would be a threat to cyber security? How far a scope will the Ministry include as cyber threats?

The truth is, the Singapore government has proven that it can and will restrict what goes up online, in spite of what the Minister said about the difficulties of restricting Youtube content. Youtuber Amos Yee was a clear example of how the law was brought to bear on what the powers be perceive as “non-standard” content – essentially, making disparaging comments against former Prime Minister Lee Kuan Yew. Why, then, do we need even more regulation to do that?

In addition, who would hold the cudgel for effecting these restrictions? Will there be a proper legal process, or will it be at the regulator’s sole discretion? Will there be judicial oversight and are there grounds for appeal?

Regulation, if at all necessary, cannot be done at the expense of regular and legal industry practice and preferences, or without due process factored in. This is not how we run a country that has built a reputation for enabling industry, promoting justice and abiding by the rule of law.

Once again, there are more questions than answers to the issue of media regulation. For the bulk of us, we might sleep peacefully thinking we will never be at their receiving end. But in truth, we need to ask if this is the way we want to roll out (or steam-roll through) policies, and if they might even be of any benefit to the industry that they profess to improve.