Former owner of The Online Citizen returns $5,000 in advertising funds to British firm

Advertising funds collected by The Online Citizen from a UK firm has been returned, but under protest. PHOTO: FACEBOOK/THE ONLINE CITIZEN SG

SINGAPORE - An Internet content provider that used to manage socio-political website The Online Citizen has complied with an order to return $5,000 in advertising revenue to a firm based in the United Kingdom.

On Monday (Jan 29), the content provider - The Opinion Collaborative (TOC Ltd) - said its appeal against the order by the Infocomm Media Development Authority (IMDA) had been unsuccessful.

The Collaborative has since "returned the advertising funds collected for The Online Citizen, but under protest".

TOC Ltd had taken the money for a sponsorship deal for an online essay competition it organised in 2015. It was still running the socio-political website back then, but stopped doing so in September of the same year.

The money came from Monsoons Book Club (MBC), a non-profit company in the UK which had Singapore fugitive Tan Wah Piow as one of its directors.

This led to the Media Development Authority, which was the regulator at the time, to say that TOC Ltd had gone against specified licensing conditions that forbid organisations from receiving foreign funds.

Under licensing rules, TOC Ltd could not receive funding from foreign sources for the provision, management, or operation of The Online Citizen website except for "bona fide commercial purposes", the authority said at the time.

It gave TOC Ltd 30 days to return the money, marking the first time a registered website was asked to return advertising revenue.

The aim was to ensure that foreign entities do not engage in domestic politics, according to the regulator. It added that this was also to uphold the principle that "domestic politics must remain a matter for Singapore and Singaporeans alone".

In announcing its return of the money on Monday (Jan 29), TOC Ltd expressed "grave concerns" on the implications of the authorities' decision on an open and fair business environment here.

Mr Tan Tee Seng, a director of TOC Ltd, said in a statement: "Right now, we just barely manage to make ends meet to cover rent and pay for essential services. The loss of $5,000 could have left us in debt and seriously crippled us."

He noted that MBC has made a separate $6,000 donation to support TOC Ltd as a social enterprise.

TOC Ltd has built up a business at community organisation The Agora, it said in a statement, adding that it provides facilities for public conversations including forums by civil society groups Function 8 and Future Of Singapore.

TOC had appealed to Minister for Communications and Information Yaacob Ibrahim against the regulator's demands. It said it disagreed with his justification in upholding them.

TOC Ltd also suggested that the minister had implied MBC had been more concerned about "how (The Online Citizen) was to conduct its own activities" than it was about the contents of the advertisement.

But TOC Ltd said that MBC had been interested in the number of entries for the contest, as it would give the firm an idea of the exposure its brand had received. It claimed MBC had not been interested in the type and form of content generated.

TOC Ltd also questioned why an advertiser should not be able to state preferences for how to the spend money it has invested, and whether the authorities were right to therefore conclude that MBC's involvement suggested an intent to manipulate anything here.

TOC Ltd cried foul on being "penalised" for its inability to produce supporting documents to justify its case as well, saying that IMDA had not responded "promptly" when it initially submitted its funding records.

It had received the funds in April 2015 and notified the regulator of the money within a month, according to previous reports of the case.

However, the regulator's order to return the funds came only 11 months afterwards.

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