Pre-election squeeze in S’pore

James Gomez
Asia Times Online

In a clear sign that general elections are on the way in Singapore, the ruling People’s Action Party (PAP)-led government has intensified its harassment and regulation of online media, similar to restrictions enforced ahead of previous polls.

Earlier this week, authorities wrote to The Online Citizen, providing the citizen journalism news site advance official notice that it will be “gazetted” under the Political Donations Act, a designation that will bring the independent news provider under government regulation.

A day later, the government-run Media Development Authority (MDA) weighed in, demanding that the website register itself under the Broadcasting Class License Notification (BCLN) scheme for “providing a program for the promotion or discussion of political issues related to Singapore”.

The Online Citizen, or TOC as it is more popularly known, started operations in December 2006, soon after the last general elections were held and overwhelmingly won by the PAP. TOC now boasts an audience of 20,000 to 30,000 readers per day, while its Facebook page currently has some 10,600 “likes”.

“Gazetting” in Singapore means that an organization, deemed in the context of the Political Donations Act (PDA) to be engaging primarily in political matters, must have that designation published in official government documents. Once this official announcement is made, the organization must comply with regulations stipulated within the PDA.

Under the BCLN scheme, TOC’s operators are legally required to provide details about its web publisher, web host and editorial members currently residing in Singapore, making it easier for the authorities to locate journalists and editors in the case of legal action.

The official harassment is not coincidental. Last month, TOC announced on its website that it was in the process of putting together a team of analysts, commentators, videographers and photographers to cover upcoming general elections, which must be held before February 2012.

TOC has earned a large following by covering bread-and-butter issues often overlooked by the state-controlled media, including punchy stories on the rising cost of living, growing wealth gap between rich and poor, problems with public transportation, and the suffering of lowly paid foreign workers.

The government’s new demands mean that the citizen journalism site will in future be unable to receive funds from foreign donors, while anonymous local donations will be capped at Singapore $5,000 (US$3,870). TOC must also identity its key stakeholders to the government.

It’s not clear yet what financial impact this will have on TOC’s operations, but it will clearly have a psychological effect on its editors, writers and readers. The PAP has long relied on psychological tactics to encourage self-censorship and ensure its re-election bid is not complicated by independent reporting on hot button issues.

The government has gone after independent online media in the past. Sintercom, a forerunner citizen journalism site to TOC, initially escaped registration under the BCLN, then under the Singapore Broadcasting Authority, and the site reported extensively on the general elections in 1997.

Sintercom’s reportage was widely viewed as more timely and fairer than the government-influenced media’s coverage. Four years later, however, Sintercom was required ahead of the 2001 elections to register its website under the BCLN, which stated “the need for content providers to be responsible and transparent when engaging in the propagation, promotion or discussion of political issues”. Sintercom decided to close down its site rather than comply.

At about that time, the Political Donation Act (PDA) also came into effect. The PDA seeks to prevent foreign interference in domestic politics by placing specific restrictions on funds that local political parties and any other entities “gazetted” by the Prime Minister’s Office may receive.

Think Center, another Singapore online citizen journalism site, was also gazetted before the 2001 polls under the PDA. When the elections were called, Think Center received notices from the authorities to take down certain articles written by an opposition party member or face prosecution under the Parliamentary Election Act, which forbids non-political party websites from publishing election “advertising”.

Fast forward 10 years, the government’s attempts at controlling online content are strikingly similar. In an e-mail sent by the Prime Minister’s Office on January 10, TOC was given 14 days to reveal the identities of its owners, editorial team and administrators. The e-mail also stated, “The Online Citizen has been determined to be an organization whose objects or activities relate wholly or mainly to politics in Singapore.”

TOC’s “gazetting” has not come in isolation. Since last year, the Prime Minister’s Office has “gazetted” several non-governmental organizations, including two newly registered groups, Singaporeans For Democracy and MAURAH, as political associations which may not raise funds from foreign sources. Meanwhile, the Registry of Political Donations is situated within the Elections Department, which in turn is located strategically in the Prime Minister’s Office.

The ruling PAP has effectively introduced legislative provisions to curb the potential for the Internet to give a platform for opposition or critical voices and in the process undermined Singapore’s claim to holding free and fair elections. While the government looked past online media when Internet penetration rates were low, with over 80% of the population now online Internet control has become a policy priority.

In May 2010, the PAP amended the Parliamentary Elections Act to introduce a new bill that increased “the minimum period between nomination day and polling day by one day, and to use that extra day as a cooling off day”. During the “cooling off” period, no election “advertising” is allowed except for “news” from government licensed organizations and sanctioned political party broadcasts.

Significantly, the bill was silent on election information disseminated online from unsanctioned sources. The Political Donations Act and the BCLN scheme thus come handy for harassment – as witnessed in TOC’s case. The legislative upshot has been a chilling effect on websites and blogs that earlier aimed to report independently on the upcoming polls. And that raises perennial questions about the quality of Singapore’s elections and democracy.

Dr James Gomez is Deputy Associate Dean (International) and Head of Public Relations at Monash University’s School of Applied Media and Social Science in Australia.

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