Singapore’a Media: A chill in the blogosphere

The Economist

In a country where the government has a pretty tight control over the traditional media—newspapers and television—Singaporeans with an appetite for alternative views have long gravitated towards the internet. So the news last week that one of the main independent socio-political blog sites, The Online Citizen (TOC), is being “gazetted” by the government has sent shockwaves through Singapore’s burgeoning, boisterous (and now rather fearful) online community.

Gazetting sounds quaint, but is anything but. It’s a means by which the government can demand that any organisation be reclassified as the government sees fit. TOC is a kind of journalistic platform; the powers-that-be now want to register the organisation as a political association. The site is to be designated as a political website. This means that TOC will fall under the rules that govern other (normal) political organisations—like parties.

Under the Political Donations Act, TOC will be subject to a cap of 5,000 Singapore dollars ($3,900) in accepting anonymous donations and banned outright from receiving funds from foreign donors. The government’s registry of political donations has already asked TOC to identify clearly all its owners, journalists and anyone else associated with the site. It was given two weeks to comply. And this is but one of the new rules to which the site will be subject.

No specific reasons have been given for why the government wants to take this action, and at this particular moment in time. All the government has said, through its registry of political donations, is that “As a website that provides coverage and analysis of political issues, TOC has the potential to influence the opinions of their readership and shape political outcomes in Singapore. It has been gazetted to ensure that it is not funded by foreign elements or sources.”

Every journalist, of course, wants to influence the opinions of his or her readers—that’s why we we’re all in this business. The same, of course, could be said of almost any media organisation. More to the point, media observers say, is that there is a general election expected in the next few months and the Peoples’ Action Party government wants to start exerting some control over the unruly, independent-minded blogosphere—lest it spill over into effective opposition. One expert on the media in Singapore told me that it was a “clear warning” to the rest of the country’s online critics. We are watching you closely, and can take action.

The last time a comparable website was gazetted it happened in almost identical circumstances.  Sintercom was told to register as a political association in 2001, also just before an election. On that occasion, the founder of the site closed it down rather than comply with the government’s demands and what he called the “self-censorship” that was expected of him.

Some analysts argue that gazetting should not in fact make much practical difference to TOC’s day-to-day operations. Indeed, the government argues that it will be free to carry on with its “normal, lawful operations”. The aforementioned media expert, however, says that the action against TOC is intended to cause a chilling effect on its content and that of other websites as well. As a political association, TOC says it will have to comply carefully with the Broadcasting Act. It will have to mind more carefully what it says, and it may think twice before straying into controversial areas, such as homelessness and income inequality—ie, the sort of self-censorship that the founder of Sintercom was not prepared to tolerate.

TOC, for its part, has sent off a letter to the prime minister’s office asking for an explanation. The website argues that that whereas it might have been critical of government policies, it has never indulged in “partisan” politics. TOC also says that it is quite open and transparent enough already. It cheekily adds that the website merely tries to live up to the prime minister’s words: he has said that he wants Singaporeans to be more “unconventional” and “spontaneous”.