MDA responds to anti-Stomp petition

An image showing the online petition, hosted on international campaigning site change.org, to shut down the Stomp website. -- PHOTO: CHANGE.ORG
An image showing the online petition, hosted on international campaigning site change.org, to shut down the Stomp website. -- PHOTO: CHANGE.ORG

Regulator says it won't influence editorial slant amid online campaign

Media regulator the Media Development Authority (MDA) will not influence the editorial slant of websites but will take firm action if there is a breach of public interest or the promotion of racial and religious hatred or intolerance.

In a statement on its Facebook page last weekend, it wrote that netizens can and should continue to signal to Internet content providers the standards expected of them as part of efforts to promote responsible online behaviour.

The post was made in response to a petition to shut down citizen journalism website Stomp, which is owned by Singapore Press Holdings (SPH). The petition claims to have collected more than 22,700 signatures since being set up 11 days ago on international campaigning site change.org by 26-year-old retail executive Robin Li.

In its reply, the MDA said to netizens: "Should you believe that Stomp, together with other class-licensed and individually licensed sites merit stronger regulation, we invite you to propose how the standards should be tightened. Let's build a healthy online environment together."

Mr Li told The Straits Times that he launched the petition after a March 24 post on Stomp in which an NSman was accused by a Stomp contributor of failing to offer his seat to an elderly woman in front of him.

But one picture in the post's photo gallery showed a reserve seat near the NSman that was empty.

Mr Li said that was the "last straw". "Many netizens contribute posts that are at the expense of others, especially NSmen. Their faces are not blurred either... this promotes voyeurism and comes at the expense of their privacy," he said.

Mr Felix Soh, editor, digital media group, of SPH's Digital Division which oversees Stomp, denied Mr Li's accusations and pointed out that there was no attempt to hide any information in the March 24 story.

"In fact, the full picture showing an empty seat on the MRT train was published by Stomp in the gallery of two photos accompanying the story. Furthermore, the fact that there was an empty seat in the row was mentioned in the second paragraph."

He added: "It is sad that those who clamour for the freedom of the Internet are now asking for the closure of a website - just because they don't like it."

Mr Soh said that while the citizen journalism site, launched in 2006, may have its detractors, it also has a large base of supporters.

Last month, the site drew 120 million page views and had 1.68 million unique visitors. It also has more than 199,700 likes on its Facebook page.

In January, it won gold for Best Original Content at the Mob-Ex awards.

It also picked up a gold for Best in Online Media at the 2013 Asian Digital Media Awards, organised by the World Association of Newspapers and News Publishers (Wan-Ifra).

Mr Li has yet to decide what to do once the petition hits the 25,000 mark, but said it was unrealistic to expect the site to be shut down. "The point is to raise awareness about the need for better guidelines and content moderation," he said.

But one issue is whether the petition's claimed figures are accurate.

Said SPH spokesman Ginney Lim, executive vice-president of corporate communications and corporate social responsibility: "Two of our staff received e-mails from the petition organiser thanking them for signing up to the petition, when in fact they had not done so. Upon investigation, we have found that the website, change.org, which is being used to initiate the petitions, works in a loose way - anyone can go to the website and sign up any number of people.

"So a person can sign up his entire address book and insert comments, and all of them will be counted as having signed the petition."

The American-based site, which also hosts paid petitions from organisations such as Amnesty International, does not require users to input legitimate e-mail addresses. Even fictitious e-mail addresses can be used, and the site will count them all as petitioners.

"Under the circumstances, the number of petitioners being cited is likely to be grossly inflated," said Ms Lim, who is also SPH's general counsel.

Dr Michael Netzley, a media researcher and academic director of executive development at Singapore Management University, said that without a clear verification system, there was no way to know the true number of signatures on the site.

Rather than being a "serious" attempt to shut down Stomp, the petition perhaps serves more as "public feedback about the quality of engagement on Stomp", he added.

Stomp contributor Kenny Koh, 29, a legal secretary, believes the site is useful. "It's a platform where people get to raise important questions about their daily lives."

Rather than calling for the site to be shut down, he suggested more constructive criticism instead - such as giving less prominence to "gossipy posts".

Ms Lim also pointed out that Stomp has taken a strong stance on professionalism. In 2012, it sacked content producer Ms Samantha Francis, then 23, for submitting a fake photo of a SMRT train running with its doors open.

In February, as part of a group-wide reorganisation, Stomp was transferred from The Straits Times to a newly created Digital Division, along with AsiaOne, the group's news aggregator. SPH said the aim was to strengthen its digital capabilities, with an organisational structure that is better aligned with its business aspirations.