berthahenson

Calling out the MDA

In News Reports, Politics, Society on June 2, 2013 at 11:37 am

On Friday, I was approached to put my name on the media statement calling on the online community to join a series of online/offline protests against the Media Development Authority’s licensing scheme for news websites. I asked for time to think. I also asked to see the “link’’ that people would be directed to that was on the statement. But that “link’’, which turned out to be FAQs exhorting individuals to sign up, wasn’t ready. So I didn’t sign.

I do not like the MDA scheme at all. To think I left the traditional media which was bound by the Newspaper and Printing Presses Act to be subject to yet another similar instrument! But I am not subject to it, not as a blogger in any case, as MDA has clarified. So Bertha Harian is safe. But what about Breakfast Network? That’s still a question mark because the MDA can’t seem to get its act together to give clear answers. Am I to assume that Breakfast Network has the all-clear too because The Online Citizen has pressed its case for licensing and it has been “rejected’’? BTW, Good game TOC!

So it seems whether a website is worth being licensed despite fulfilling content and reach criteria is something for the MDA to decide. What does this mean? That a site has to keep within acceptable boundaries when reporting local developments and write the “right stuff’’ if it wants grow the number of eyeballs beyond 50,000 visitors and not put up the $50,000 bond? Guess what? This could mean the G considers TOC “acceptable’’ – kiss of death or what?

Or maybe the G’s real target is Yahoo, the only non MSM on the list of 10 websites. Dear Yahoo, what did you do wrong? Or were you making too much money off Singapore news?

There was an interesting piece in Singapolitics (yes, MSM) on the difficulties of controlling the Internet. The column did not slam the licensing scheme (it is, after all, MSM) but went into how the G was stuck between a rock and a hard place when it comes to regulating the Internet. By its very nature, the Internet can’t be regulated. It is too free-wheeling and there will always be ways to get out from under anybody’s control or oversight. Other countries have tried to do so and the attempts have been seen as “censorship’’ of free speech – a very bad word.

The G could try clarifying the term “news website’’ further but it would lead to the following scenarios:
a. Say Facebook and forums which fulfil the content and reach criteria also comes under the ambit of the scheme. There’s better clarity now BUT the outcry would be tremendous! Poor sammyboy and PropertyGuru etc. Plus there will be arguments on who really is the Facebook owner? Maybe Facebook should put up the performance bond.

b. If there’s further clarity, then people would simply jump to platforms that won’t come under the scheme. So we jump to, say, Twitter. If Twitter is covered at a later stage, then we can cry foul and say this is not fair, you didn’t cover Twitter in the first place.

c. If the G starts covering all sorts of aggregators and whatever else with a local IP address in the scheme, then it would really amount to a draconian approach to control the Internet universe. It won’t have a leg to stand on when it talks about being more transparent and open to views.

d. So you jump to a foreign server to escape but then again, the G have already said it would move in on these people who report on local developments from abroad. How would it do so and how would it enforce this is unclear – and will be interesting to watch. Wow, is the BBC and CNN going to have to put up a bond too?

That’s probably why the G phrased its definition of “news site’’ so broadly and then tries to appease the rest of the world by saying it won’t be using the stick too much. In fact, what it is saying is: “Trust us not to be unreasonable. After all, we haven’t been unreasonable have we? Only one “take down’’ notice over the years…’’

That’s really the problem isn’t it? It’s about giving the executive arm so much/too much discretion. Now what happens if one day, the executive decides to “get unreasonable’’ and start issuing take-down notices – because it can? Do we then mount a challenge in the courts? Pretty tough since the issue wasn’t debated in Parliament and the courts can’t depend on the “will’’ or “intent’’ of Parliament to reach a full verdict. It might have to dig back to the days when the NPPA and the Broadcasting Act was first legislated – the dinosaur era.

The G’s next argument would be: Then the people had better make sure that good, reasonable people are elected so that executive powers won’t be abused.

It’s a line that it doesn’t really believe.

Look at how the Elected Presidency was introduced as a safeguard on the nation’s reserves so that if terrible people are in power and start raiding the reserves, we won’t be a bankrupt nation.

One other point: It has noted that the opposition parties have never called for a repeal of newspaper or broadcasting laws, because it would serve their interests to have them controlled should they be in power one day.

Hmm. That’s true.

Why do opposition parties keep railing at the pro-G MSM but not buckle down to actually doing something about it? Like getting the media laws repealed?

Perhaps, everyone has given up on that territory and now want to ring fence the new territory from G intervention. Hence the protests and such like.
Would I have signed the statement if I had time to think? Maybe.

The statement calls for action. A repeal of the scheme. Perhaps, it should have called for a conference with MDA first and have it out with the officials? Or would that be too lame? But just because the MDA doesn’t “consult’’ doesn’t mean the online community has to resort to the same tactics. Will the MDA talk? My guess is that it didn’t reckon with the kind of outcry the move has drawn. This is a far more discerning electorate than the one which accepted the old media laws. This is a community with a vested interest in keeping some territory to itself.

Note that objectionable content is already under the classification regime and other laws can be used to deal with the malicious and the mischievous. If the concern is the standard of professional reporting online, then other methods can be agreed upon, such as insisting on the right of reply and a policy of correcting errors for news sites with the content and reach envisaged. Perhaps, news sites can commit to a policy to have public comments only by readers who are ready to be identified, as it is for the letters pages in mainstream newspapers. That would be parity with MSM that some in the online community could live with.

I mean, I could live with that.

Perhaps I should have signed the statement if only to bring MDA to the table. But in the end, I am glad that I didn’t sign, because what I saw of the initial FAQs that were made public left me wondering if the online community was shooting itself in its own foot.

There was, for example, a quip that STOMP would be the first to be taken down. Was that necessary? Or is this only because STOMP belonged to the mainstream media which the online community likes so much to criticise. Is this fact or speculation? In any case, this phrase was deleted later.

Okay then.

Then there were the “personal’’ FAQs on why individuals should sign. To people who blog, it said: “Sorry to break it to you, but if you have more than 50,000 unique views a day, you better have $50k to pay.”

MDA has already said bloggers are excluded. But the group did not mention this caveat, and appears to be proceeding on the assumption that MDA isn’t saying so in good faith.

This phrase was subsequently amended to add this point:

“Even though MDA said that blogs do not fall under the licensing scheme, this is not reflected in the wording of the legislation. It leaves the door open for blogs or any other site to be forced to license in the future without any change in the law.’’

So much better.

Then there was the call to mainstream journalists. They should join the protest if they “have an iota of professional pride’’.

“If you belong to one of the publications who have been asked to license under the Licensing Regime, consider this: you are soon going to belong to an organization that has to pay money to guarantee its continued good behaviour. Is that what you went to J school for?’’

The group forgot that the MSM journalists already work under the Newspaper and Printing Presses Act and Broadcasting Act. Or they wouldn’t have mentioned anything about “professional pride’’. (So they already lack that even now?) Not quite the way to make friends…In fact, MSM might well retort that the group should have asked for “parity’’, to have the current MSM laws should be repealed as well.

In any case, the answer has been amended to this :

“Journalists in the mainstream media have long worked under the control of the Newspaper and Printing Presses Act (NPPA). If you have ever experienced how editorial control stemming from the NPPA chafes at your journalistic sensibilities, why would you desire that potentially any expression online to be subject to NPPA-like controls?’’

Hmm…good sleight of hand.

Herein lies the difference between online reporting and MSM. Because it is definitely the case that online sites can make corrections quickly, even surreptitiously, compared to MSM which has to live with their mistakes in print for all to see. This is one factor that makes MSM careful about their reporting and ensure that facts are checked before publication.

But in the initial as well as current FAQs is this assumption that was made about “pro-PAP’’ websites and how they would be “happy that anti-PAP websites now have to live under a cloud of fear’’.

The group’s answer on why they should join the protest: “Your joy could be short lived. Elections come around every 5 years, and there’s no guarantee that the PAP is going to be in power forever.
“One day, you might live under an opposition government, who could very well use these press laws against you. Remember, the PAP was once part of the opposition too…’’

Now, that’s a bit unfair on pro-PAP websites. Just because they support the PAP, does this mean they would agree automatically with the diktats of the G? And what does that make the group behind the protests? Anti-PAP? Are we to assume that only anti-PAP people would decry this legislation? Why do we need to fracture the online community like this?

In any case, I will be at Hong Lim Park to do a hopefully professional job of reporting. Now I can only hope that no one takes a “if you are not with us, you must be against us’’ approach to those who declined to add their name to the petition. Because one of the great things about the online media is this: It allows for a plurality of views

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  1. Thank you for your comments on the campaign! It’s a pity that you weren’t comfortable signing the petition but there are many different ways to express our views on this licensing issue and I hope you continue to register your concerns with this legislation however you can.

    The movement will continue to learn and evolve and move forward, and even though you did not want to sign the petition I hope you would still be willing to support efforts to #FreeMyInternet. And do attend the protest and give your account of it!

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