When word started going around that news sites were going to be licensed, my first instinct was: I want to be there when they announce this. I tried to wrangle an invite but was told I am not “accredited media”. (By the way, I don’t think Yahoo! News was invited either. And the news site is going to have to get a licence and put up a $50,000 bond.)
I wanted to be there because I am still, at heart, a curious journalist. Second, I write a blog and am now trying to build Breakfast Network by experimenting with alternative ways of telling the news in a moderate voice. Third, because I am a concerned citizen who wonders why we need more, rather than fewer, rules to govern what we say.
I wanted to ask questions. Now I wish I had banged the door down because the MSM did a pretty poor job of asking tough questions going by all the reports I’ve read so far. Maybe they have been “gagged” or given some deep background briefing that is off the record that convinces them of the need for such licensing. Maybe they too believe that the licensing of sites is the right thing to do since they already have to obtain licences for their newspaper products. I doubt though that any self-respecting journalist would adopt such a dog in the manger approach. More likely, they would want parity to go the other way: If online sites are not licensed, newspapers shouldn’t be too.
Which is why it’s really odd for the Minister to talk about being “fair” to mainstream media by imposing the same rules for online sites. It makes MSM look as though it were them who asked for a level playing field. That, I cannot believe.
Now, it’s no secret that the G has been looking for ways to keep online commentators in line. We just have to refer to the rush of letters of demand in recent time. Sure thing, some comments are egregiously damaging, undermines trust in institutions and plain false. To keep policing by throwing the law at individuals looks like a pretty tedious process. Hence, why not a blanket approach?
Perhaps, as an online community, we have failed to police ourselves. The G might well argue that it had wanted an Internet Code of Conduct in place but the online community who see this as a censorship threat was reluctant to co-operate. It might well say this: “It’s your fault. And that’s why we have to resort to such a blunt instrument as licensing.”
The funny thing is, when the announcement was finally made, the G merely extended it really to just one site, Yahoo! News. The other nine are owned by MSM. So this is the light touch? Or the thin end of the wedge? It cannot be that the G is worried about MSM content. It has so many ways to make MSM compliant. It is probably worried about bloggers and sites that have a reach which will grow to rival those of MSM. So it’s a pre-emptive strike.
It will backfire.
Anyway, what are the questions that should have been posed?
a. How did the G come to the 50,000 visitors figure?
b. How did it come up with $50,000 performance bond?
c. How did it come up with something like this as a content criteria: Report an average of at least one article per week on Singapore’s news and current affairs over a period of two months? It looks tailored….
d. Is it entirely within its discretion which sites to “notify’’ for licensing? If so, does this mean it might well not bother with some “nice’’ sites even though they meet both criteria on reach and local news content? What about individual bloggers and Facebook commentators with huge followings?
e. That 24-hour deadline on “take it down’’ or else. Who will determine what should be taken down? Is there an avenue of appeal? Does this mean that the current classification guidelines and code of conduct aren’t working and hence the need for this sledgehammer approach?
f. Can it cite instances when guidelines were regularly breached and by who or which site? In other words, who or what is it really targeting? Socio-political sites? Sites with shady foreign funding? Black ops type of sites? It can’t be just those 10 sites!
g. Are the current laws too weak to deal with egregious breaches?
h. How would it justify licensing in the light of what has been said about having an open, transparent conversation in a new normal Singapore?
i. How would it answer accusations that this would constrain those who have something constructive to say that might not be to its liking? Or those who say that it is adding to a “climate of fear’’.
j. Does it believe that engagement with the online community is a way to add to civic discussion? Did it engage the online on this licensing scheme at all?
Given the round of condemnation online so far, no one has been been consulted on this brainwave. So the licensing scheme has been imposed from up high. And there I was thinking that Singapore had entered a new era.
I would rather the G level with us and tell us exactly who or what it is targeting than put up that fig leaf of 10 sites. Can the G at least be honest about its intentions and upfront about what else it intends to do in the future even if it thinks the likes of us online aren’t worth engaging?
My more immediate question is: What should I do now? Odd that my fellow members on Breakfast Network and I would have to think about how NOT to make ourselves so popular that we would breach the 50,000 threshold. Even if we have $50,000 to spare, it’s not nice to have to wonder about phone calls in the night or an email to demand that a post be deleted. And it’s not nice to have to second guess what the G (or which god in which department) thinks about this post or that and that particular god-person’s threshold of “sensitivity’’.
I gather I cut too close to the bone sometimes when I write – even when I wield a scalpel and not a cleaver. Maybe I should stick to writing nice, boring stuff. But that isn’t me.
This is depressing.
This article first appeared on http://www.breakfastnetwork.sg