MDA defends new rules to license news sites while netizens cry foul

To a chorus of criticism, the Media Development Authority (MDA) yesterday said categorically that it was not trying to clamp down on Internet freedom with its new online licensing scheme.

Contrary to netizens' claims that the ruling raises more questions than answers, the media regulator said the changes were meant to provide greater clarity on prevailing content standards in the Internet Code of Practice current rules that all news sites already have to abide by.

It stressed that there was no change to these standards.

"It is not MDA's policy intent to place onerous obligations on the licensees," it said yesterday, noting that the performance bond of $50,000 required of licensed news sites is pegged to the amount required of niche broadcasters.

It also noted that websites would have a month to seek clarifications once they receive a notice and the MDA would "welcome them to discuss their concerns with us".

Its statement, in response to media queries, came as changes to the regulations giving effect to new licensing rules were gazetted yesterday.

In a notice posted on the Government Gazette yesterday, the MDA said news sites that fit certain criteria will now be excluded from the automatic class licence scheme, which most websites currently fall into.

On Tuesday, it announced that news websites would need to apply for an individual licence if they met two criteria: They have more than one news story on Singapore per week, and attract more than 50,000 unique visitors from Singapore per month, over a period of two months.

Many netizens had reacted angrily online, saying that the definitions were too broad and a form of censorship.

They asked for more clarity on how websites would be chosen and what the legislation was meant to achieve. The National Solidarity Party and the Singapore Democratic Party also decried the ruling as "regressive" and impeding local media.

Yesterday, Tampines GRC MP Baey Yam Keng, deputy chairman of the Government Parliamentary Committee (GPC) for Communications and Information, said the MDA should provide many more examples of what it considers prohibited material, to "make clear the point that it is only going after content that is not in good taste or racially and religiously offensive".

Others like former Nominated MP Siew Kum Hong noted that the list of 10 sites MDA had asked to apply for a licence were all commercially owned entities, and suggested the MDA "clearly affirm" that the regulations were meant only for commercial sites.

"That will go a long way towards addressing the perception that this measure is solely intended to bring the Internet to heel," he said.

Socio-political website The Online Citizen also continued its disagreement with MDA over whether or not it crossed the threshold for licensing.

TOC maintains that it does, even though it was not asked to apply for a licence. Yesterday, it posted statistics showing it had 171,601 unique visitors from April 26 to May 26. It did not state where the visitors came from.

MDA yesterday repeated its earlier statement that the site did not qualify although it did not elaborate.

It also did not answer queries on whether it would ban or block a website that flouts its licence. It said, however, that the offending website's owner could be fined up to $200,000 and/or imprisoned up to three years.

It did, however, elaborate on how it decided on the visitor threshold.

It said: "MDA has typically used reach as a criterion for various licences. In this case, our assessment is that a site accessed from more than 50,000 monthly unique IP addresses in Singapore has sufficiently high reach to warrant an individual licence.

"We use a range of data sources including traffic monitoring and consumer surveys to determine the reach of a website."

twong@sph.com.sg