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Facing New Licensing Rules, Leading Political News Site Closes in Singapore

Categories: Singapore, Free Expression, Internet governance, Law, Regulation

breakfast [1]A Singaporean news site known as Breakfast Network [1] was forced to close down after it rejected “onerous” new government registration requirements. Founded by former Straits Times journalist and blogger Bertha Henson, the site features social and political news and commentary. Henson elected to cease website operations after failing to submit documents demanded by the Media Development Authority (MDA). Despite warnings from the MDA, Breakfast Network is maintaining an online presence [2] through its Facebook and Twitter accounts.

Under a section of the Broadcasting (Class License) Act introduced last June [3], a corporate entity or website providing political commentary must register [4] with the MDA to ensure that it does not receive foreign funding. Aside from revealing its funding source, the website must submit the personal information of its editors and staff.

Breakfast Network was ordered [5] by the MDA to register on or before December 17 but the website editor said the government’s technical requirements and registration forms contained too many vague provisions [6].

For its part, the MDA said [7] the “registration requirement is simply to ensure that Breakfast Network will not receive foreign funding.” It directed Breakfast Network to “cease its online service,” including its Facebook and Twitter publications:

Since Breakfast Network has decided not to submit the registration form, and will therefore not be complying with the registration notification, MDA will require [8] that Breakfast Network cease its online service.

MDA would like to reiterate that the content is not the issue. Rather, it is the mode of operation, i.e. via a corporate entity which means there is greater possibility for foreign influence. Should Breakfast Network Pte Ltd remain active as a company, it must not operate any iteration of www.breakfastnetwork.sg on other Internet platforms as doing so would contravene MDA’s registration requirements. These other Internet platforms include Breakfast Network’s Facebook page and Twitter Feed.

Netizens and media groups quickly denounced the “overly-intrusive requirements” imposed by the government and warned against excessive media regulation. Cherian George described the site's closure as “death by red tape [9].” Braema Mathi of the human rights group Maruah worried that the “registration requirement has chilled [10] and reduced the space for free expression in Singapore.” She continued:

As a regulator tasked with developing the media landscape in Singapore, MDA should consider the substantive impact of its decisions, not just its own subjective intent. Registration requirements can operate to censor free expression as effectively as, and more insidiously than, outright demands to remove content.

Blogger Ng E-Jay accused the government of being a “highly sophisticated oppressor [11]” by “forcing the removal via legislation” of a website that is known for advocating “constructive and critical dialogue” in the country.

MDA insisted [12] that it merely implemented a policy that seeks to prevent foreign interests from manipulating the local media. It added that the registration procedure is not a form of censorship.

Nevertheless, the closure of a leading socio-political website has put a spotlight on what the Singaporean government calls a “light touch [13]” approach Internet regulation. Many groups believe this and other new policies [14] are undermining [15] media freedom in the country.