Tuesday, May 5, 2015Tuesday, May 5, 2015

MDA scraps self-classification scheme for arts groups: What's the controversy about

Published on Aug 22, 2014 6:04 PM
A scene from the Singapore Repertory Theatre's The Merchant Of Venice, Shakespeare In The Park 2014. The Singapore Repertory Theatre was one of 45 arts groups which registered strong opposition to the scheme. -- PHOTO: SINGAPORE REPERTORY THEATRE

The Media Development Authority (MDA) said on Friday it will scrap a controversial licensing scheme that would have allowed individual and arts groups to self-classify performances.

This comes after 45 arts groups registered strong opposition to the scheme when the authority launched a public consultation exercise on the proposed changes on May 12. They signed a position paper released by the artists' network Arts Engage on May 30, which detailed their objections to the scheme.

Several meetings were held between the MDA and the arts groups in July, but "there are certain expectations of Arts Engage that MDA will not be able to meet", the authority said on Friday. These included the expectation of autonomy in the application of arts classification guidelines, no "Not Allowed For All Ratings" category (effectively a ban on a work), and no punitive measures regardless of the type of breach, save for a revoking of the term licence.

We look back at the controversy over the proposal:

1. What's the scheme about?

The Arts Term Licensing Scheme, which is optional, allows individuals and groups to self-classify performances with age-appropriate ratings. The MDA had planned to include the scheme in its list of proposed amendments to the Public Entertainments and Meetings Act.

Currently, the MDA assesses every single production - a process which can take up to 40 days. It then gives it an age-appropriate advisory or rating.

Under the proposed scheme, groups can apply for two types of licences. Tier 1 licences allow for the self-classification of General-rated performances, suitable for all ages. However, unscripted performances, or those touching on race, religion or politics, will still have to be submitted to the MDA for licensing.

Tier 2 licences allow for the self-classification of all performances rated up to R18, restricted to those aged 18 and above, but unscripted and outdoor performances with an Advisory, Advisory 16 or R18 rating must be individually licensed by the MDA.

To take part in the scheme, arts groups have to appoint an MDA-registered content assessor, who will be trained in classifying each show according to MDA's classification code. Licensing officers from MDA have the authority to reject groups' classifications and revoke their licences.

Groups whose content assessors misclassify performances can face a fine of up to $5,000, and may have their licences revoked. Those who disagree with the licensing officer's decisions can appeal to the Minister.

2. What's the idea behind the scheme?

The MDA views this as a step towards "co-regulation", its term for empowering and working together with artists to define classification boundaries. The idea for co-regulation was recommended during both the 2003 and 2010 Censorship Review.

The scheme was meant to "facilitate the creation of an environment which allows arts practitioners to undertake greater ownership and responsibility for their content in ensuring it meets community standards", the MDA said then.

Getting arts groups to self-classify performances would also cut administrative red tape, resulting in cost and time savings. The scheme being optional, those who did not wish to take part could continue to submit their individual applications to MDA.

The MDA had planned to implement a pilot run of the scheme in July. Implementation, however, was put on hold following objection from the arts groups.

3. Why were arts groups against it?

Artists argued that it would pass the responsibility of censorship from the MDA to the artist, effectively encouraging self-censorship and undermining artistic integrity. They were also wary of penalties they would incur for misclassifying a performance.

On May 30 this year, 45 arts groups registered strong objections to the scheme in a position paper addressed to the MDA. The 12-page paper, submitted by artists’ network Arts Engage, had the backing of industry heavyweights such as the Singapore Dance Theatre and Singapore Repertory Theatre, and traditional arts companies such as the Chinese Theatre Circle.

The arts groups took issue with the requirement that content assessors had to comply with the MDA's classification guidelines, pointing out that not all artists agree with the guidelines.

For instance, it is subjective judgment whether a performance merits an Advisory 16 classification - no age restriction imposed but it suggests that the content may not be suitable for younger audiences - or labelled R18, restricted to those aged 18 and above. The most stringent classification is Not Allowed For All Ratings - which is effectively a ban.

There was also concern that some arts groups might end up opting for a stricter classification to avoid being penalised. Groups whose content assessors misclassify performances could face a fine of up to $5,000, and may have their licences revoked.

Arts Engage, in its position paper, says the penalty reflects a double standard, as licensing officers in MDA are not liable to be penalised for misclassifications. Rather than punishing arts groups for not classifying correctly, the paper argues that artists should have the right to open a dialogue with anyone who complains against the rating given to a performance.

On Aug 22, the MDA released its closing note to the public consultation on proposed amendments to the act: http://www.mda.gov.sg/RegulationsAndLicensing/Consultation/Pages/ConsultationPapers.aspx

Watch what the artists have to say about the scheme: