SINGAPORE - Socio-political website The Real Singapore (TRS) was shut down by its editors yesterday, after the Media Development Authority (MDA) suspended their licence to operate the site and ordered them to take it offline.
Explaining this unprecedented step, the MDA said yesterday that TRS had published material that is "objectionable on the grounds of public interest, public order and national harmony".
Noting that at least two out of TRS' three known editors are foreigners, the agency added that the site "sought to incite anti-foreigner sentiments in Singapore" and to "make profit at the expense of Singapore's public interest and national harmony".
The move comes a month after two of the editors behind TRS - Singaporean student Yang Kaiheng, 26, and his Australian girlfriend Ai Takagi, 22 - were charged with sedition for publishing articles that allegedly promoted ill will and hostility between different races or classes here.
A third editor, Melanie Tan, who is believed to be Malaysian, was not included in the charges.
At a media briefing yesterday, MDA said TRS "deliberately fabricated articles and falsely attributed them to innocent parties", in what the agency believes was an attempt to raise the site's traffic - and thus its advertising dollars.
It also noted that TRS inserted falsehoods in articles so as to make them more inflammatory.
Previous police investigations found that TRS articles targeted Filipinos and Chinese and Indian nationals, among others.
Assistant Professor Liew Kai Khiun, who teaches communications at the Nanyang Technological University, said MDA's unusual move should serve as a warning about "how vulnerable Singapore can be to external forces through the porous cyberspace".
"It must have been alarming for the authorities and Singaporeans to discover the extent of foreign involvement in a website that has been accused of amplifying social tensions in Singapore," he told The Straits Times.
Yesterday, MDA ordered Yang and Takagi not to post any new articles with immediate effect, and to take down the TRS website and all its online channels - including its social media pages - by 8pm. They did so an hour before the deadline.
If they had not done so, they could have been subject to a maximum fine of $200,000 and/or jailed for up to three years.
MDA also instructed Yang and Takagi not to resume online operations under any other name.
They have been given until May 11 to provide information on TRS' operations, such as its finances, and to submit arguments as to why their licence to operate the site should not be cancelled.
Failure to provide the information could result in a fine of as much as $5,000 each and/or jail time of up to a year.
If their licence is cancelled, Yang and Takagi will not be allowed to operate the website permanently. MDA will also be able to take other actions, including blocking access to the site.
But they can appeal against the suspension and potential cancellation of the licence by writing to Communications and Information Minister Yaacob Ibrahim.
Even as the site was taken down last night, several links were circulated online of what appeared to be clones of the site. An MDA spokesman said the agency is looking into the matter.
Former Nominated MP Calvin Cheng, who has campaigned for TRS to be shut down, said MDA's move is not an affront to freedom of speech.
"This is not how freedom of speech is practised in Singapore, nor is it the type that most Singaporeans value," he said.