Singapore announces new licence for online news sites
The MDA contends that the new licensing regime has been implemented in order to create greater consistency amongst other news platforms. However, concerns have been raised that the new licensing regime will hinder the free flow of information online, and will prevent smaller online news sites or blogs from being run.
We outline below the new licensing requirements and key concerns regarding it.
Online News Licence
Online news sites must now apply for an individual licence ("Licence") from the MDA if, over a period of two months, they:
(a) are visited by at least 50,000 unique IP addresses from Singapore each month; and
(b) publish on average at least one article per week on news and current affairs of Singapore (which includes any news, intelligence, report of occurrence or any matter of public interest, about any social, economic, political, cultural, artistic, sporting, scientific or other aspect of Singapore, in any language whatsoever, and whether or not it is accessed for free or subject to a charge).
Online news sites that are granted a Licence will be required to remove any content that is found by the MDA to be in breach of its standards, i.e. prohibited content, within twenty-four hours. The online news sites will also be required to put up a performance bond of SG$50,000 (about US$ 39,784 or HK$ 308,830), which may be forfeited if the MDA regulations are breached.
The Licence would be valid for a year, and the MDA will determine whether the Licence should be renewed.
Prior to the new licensing regime, online news sites were automatically class-licensed under the Singapore Broadcasting Act. If the MDA now determines that an online news site meets the above criteria, it will formally notify the online news site and work with them to move it to the new licensing regime. The following is a list of the online news sites that MDA has so far indicated that it has or will be issuing a licensing notification to:
(i) todayonline.com; and
The new licencing regime is currently limited to local Singapore based sites, which appears to include sites owned by foreign entities but with the “.sg” domain name. It is intended that the Singapore Broadcasting Act will be further amended in 2014 to more broadly cover any foreign news sites targeting the Singapore market.
Over 150 sites, including the popular socio-political blog The Online Citizen, protested against the new licensing regime by participating in a twenty-four hour online "blackout" on 6 June 2013. Participants in the protest blocked access to their sites and redirected users to a page called "Free My Internet", an online movement started by the blogging community to protest against the new changes. A further protest was also held at Hong Lim Park in Singapore on 8 June 2013.
The main concerns appear to be: (i) the new twenty-four hour deadline to take down prohibited content; (ii) the large performance bond; and (ii) the potentially broad applicability of the new licensing regime, and the implications that the foregoing may have on freedom of speech.
Twenty-four hour deadline
Even prior to the application of the new licensing regime, online news sites were required to comply with the MDA's Internet Code of Practice, including removing any "prohibited material" if required to do so by the MDA. However, a new twenty-four hour deadline to remove any content that the MDA deems to be prohibited material is now imposed on online news sites that are subject to a Licence. Previously no time limit was specified.
Under the MDA's Internet Code of Practice, "prohibited material" is broadly defined as being any material that is deemed to be "objectionable on the grounds of public interest, public morality, public order, public security, national harmony, or is otherwise prohibited by applicable Singapore laws".
Concerns have been raised regarding the ability of online news sites to comply with a direction from the MDA within such a short time period, as well as the number of directions it may receive. Failure to comply with the twenty-four hour deadline may result in the MDA imposing financial penalties or suspending or revoking the relevant online news site's Licence.
Whilst online news sites run by large corporations may be able to afford the SG$ 50,000 performance bond required to be put up in order to obtain the Licence, popular sites (especially free sites) run by smaller organisations or individuals, may not be able to do so.
This may hinder the running of or result in the shutting down of popular blogs run by individuals or free online sites reporting on any news, events, etc, concerning Singapore.
Applicability of the new licensing requirements
As stated above, the new licensing regime applies to online sites that provide any programme (whether or not the programme is presenter-based or provided by a third party) containing news, intelligence, reports of occurrence or any matter of public interest, about any social, economic, political, cultural, artistic, sporting, scientific or other aspect of Singapore, in any language whatsoever, and whether or not it is accessed for free or subject to a charge. This broad scope has raised confusion as to the application of the new licensing regime on certain sites. For example, would it apply to a popular blog started by an individual that reports on the current affairs in Singapore?
Whilst the MDA have assured the public on their Facebook page that "an individual publishing views on current affairs and trends on his/her personal website or blog does not amount to news reporting", it is not clear whether or not this extends to blogs or sites that are run by individuals attempting to report the news rather than expressing their own comments. It seems that it will be up to the MDA's discretion whether or not a site (including a blog) will be required to obtain a Licence.
However, it appears that an online news site will only be subject to the new licensing regime if the MDA issues a formal notice to the site requiring it to obtain a Licence after the MDA completes its assessment on whether or not a site meets the Licence criteria. Prior to the receipt of such a notice, an online news site will not be required to obtain a Licence. As stated by the MDA on its Facebook page, "the licensing framework only applies to sites that focus on reporting Singapore news and are notified by MDA that they meet the licensing criteria."
Continuing to run an online news site without obtaining the necessary Licence may result in the MDA exercising its general powers under the Singapore Broadcasting Act, and the site owner may be liable on conviction to a maximum fine of S$200,000 and/or to imprisonment for a maximum term of 3 years.