Govt ‘not curbing blogs, websites’

 Screenshot of socio-political website Breakfast Network. The website shut on 9 December 2013 after it decided not to register.
Screenshot of socio-political website Breakfast Network. The website shut on 9 December 2013 after it decided not to register. PHOTO: SCREENGRAB FROM BREAKFAST NETWORK

LAW and Foreign Minister K. Shanmugam yesterday responded to charges that the Government is clamping down on sociopolitical blogs and websites, saying its only aim is to encourage responsible and accountable debate online.

The Government is not out to curtail freedom of expression, he said at The Straits Times Global Outlook Forum, but it believes people should be held accountable for what they say online.

Last week, Prime Minister Lee Hsien Loong said the Government would require registration by commenters on its Reach feedback website, and encouraged other sites to do the same. 

Mr Shanmugam said yesterday that this was not foreshadowing a law “to make everyone do it”. Still, he urged “responsible, respectable” sites to do so. 

“Put down your name,” he said. “Nobody is talking about freedom of speech. You can express whatever comments you want. But just identify yourself.”

 

When Straits Times Editor Warren Fernandez, who was moderating the session, said this demand could be taken as an attempt to constrain debate online, Mr Shanmugam asked why should people be unwilling to identify themselves. “Why should people be uncomfortable expressing their views on political and social issues? I can imagine that they will be uncomfortable if they want to bully, if they want to, as often happens, distort the truth.”

Mr Shanmugam was speaking at a dialogue during the second annual Global Outlook Forum organised by The Straits Times. It was attended by more than 400 people at the Shangri-La hotel. 

He rejected the description of recent moves as “new rules” to regulate the Internet, saying they were existing media rules that were now being extended to online media.

In June, the Government introduced regulations that require news websites to take down undesirable content within 24 hours and post a $50,000 bond.  

It has also asked two websites, The Independent and Breakfast Network, to register under the Broadcasting (Class Licence) Notification. This would prohibit them from accepting foreign funding, which the Government says is a fair requirement, but which others have criticised. 

Mr Shanmugam said the Government has always had the legal power to demand the removal of posts. The only “new” part is the 24-hour timeframe, which was decided on due to the speed of online discourse, he said. 
In the past 20 years, he noted, this power was used 24 times: 22 times on pornography-related matters and twice on posts offensive to certain religious groups. 

“So, that is how it has been used,” he said. “You have a very vibrant sociopolitical commentary going online in Singapore. This current minister, and his predecessors, have never used that power to (order a) take-down.”

rchang@sph.com.sg