The Singapore government has ordered the shutdown of a socio-political website for publishing “objectionable content” that allegedly undermined public order and national harmony. The order was announced and carried out on May 3, 2015, which coincided with the celebration of World Press Freedom Day.
This is the first time that a website was taken down by the government in relation to the licensing laws under the Internet Code of Practice passed in 2013.
The Real Singapore is a website notorious for using sensationalism to attract readers. Many accused it of publishing articles that promote xenophobia. But on May 3 it ceased operations after receiving an ultimatum from the government ordering it to remove the content of its website and social media postings within six hours. Its editors, Singaporean Yang Kaiheng and his Australian girlfriend Ai Takagi, were earlier charged with sedition.
The Media Development Authority (MDA) said the order was made because The Real Singapore published several articles that sought “to incite anti-foreigner sentiments” in Singapore:
The MDA believes this editorial strategy of deceiving readers and doctoring articles was an attempt to increase traffic to TRS, and thus boost advertising revenue. In so doing, TRS, including its two foreign editors, were seeking to make profit at the expense of Singapore’s public interest and national harmony.
The Real Singapore has angered readers in the past, but its sudden closure worried many bloggers, activists, and media freedom advocates.
Disproportionate power vested in a statutory board, and unclear guidelines on actions to be taken against objectionable content.
The group asked why the government singled out The Real Singapore when other mainstream websites are also guilty of publishing ‘objectionable content’:
Objectionable, fabricated and plagiarised content is a regular practice in both mainstream and online media, and most certainly undesirable. But what gives MDA the right to stop the operation of a website on this basis? Websites managed by traditional news outlets have also been known to have fabricated content. Does MDA intend to take action against any website that plagiarises or fabricates content?
Braema Mathi from the human rights group MARUAH described the MDA action as an attack on free speech:
The Media Development Authority’s draconian measures are not the best way to do so, as they legitimise excessive intervention by the state and set a precedent for the diminution of our online space.
The sentiment of writer Ng Yi Shu reflected the reaction of many who have low opinion for The Real Singapore:
I hate The Real Singapore. I rarely hate things, let alone express my hate for it.
It was a relief to see it go – but the MDA’s move will not resolve the underlying problems that led to the site’s proliferation.
It would not resolve the close-mindedness of Singaporeans; it would not resolve the latent irrational anger and lack of proper discourse; it would not resolve our cravings for sensationalism.
These are problems only we can solve.
Another writer, Banalysis, questions the excessive action made by the government against a ‘discredited website’:
If a discredited website run by three amateurs could undermine the social fabric of our nation, then our supposedly robust and resilient racial-religious harmony is but a happy delusion. Surely fifty years of nation building can’t be threatened by some second-rate news site.
Journalist Kirsten Han notes that due process was violated since the sedition trial of the editors is not yet over:
It’s not freedom if the state has the power to order a shutdown even before due process at the courts has been concluded, and we’re meant to feel relieved and grateful that they’ve only done it once (so far).
Writing for the Asian Correspondent, Carlton Tan reminds readers about the dangers of sedition law in Singapore. “It has shown how vacuous these vague notions of sedition,” he wrote.
That MDA is the greater and more insidious threat to us all can be seen from this very action. Shrouded in a non-transparent process, it goes out to ban a website. It flings accusations without offering proof. More dangerously, it plants the idea that it has the right to adjudicate truth and falsehood.
This case shows that Singapore’s so-called ‘light touch’ policy when it comes to Internet regulation needs to be reviewed again, especially if an agency is given extensive authority to censor and remove websites.