High Court throws out TOC's bid to challenge IMDA's orders against its Chinese site, social media channels

In a written judgment, Justice Valerie Thean said TOC's application failed on both the substantive and procedural grounds. ST PHOTO: LIM YAOHUI
TOC said it was never suggested to chief editor Terry Xu that the class licence covered social media platforms. PHOTO: ST FILE

SINGAPORE - The High Court on Thursday (Dec 16) dismissed a bid by The Online Citizen (TOC) to challenge various orders given by the Infocomm Media Development Authority (IMDA) relating to the suspension of the website's class licence.

IMDA suspended TOC's class licence to run its websites and social media channels on Sept 14 after the socio-political site repeatedly refused to comply with its legal obligation to declare all sources of funding.

As TOC did not submit its declaration by the stipulated deadline, IMDA cancelled its class licence.

TOC then applied to the High Court for permission to start judicial review proceedings.

It sought four quashing orders and 10 declarations in relation to IMDA's orders against its Chinese website and its social media platforms, and the authority's prohibition against TOC providing any new broadcasting services.

In a written judgment on Thursday, Justice Valerie Thean said TOC's application failed on both the substantive and procedural grounds.

The judge said TOC did not meet the procedural requirement to start judicial review proceedings.

She said TOC ought to have first exhausted its statutory remedies under the Broadcasting Act, which provides for an appeal to the Minister.

"I therefore find that, by not appealing to the Minister... and by not adducing any exceptional circumstances to justify its omission to do so, (TOC) failed to exhaust its alternative remedies prior to invoking the court's judicial review jurisdiction," she said.

Justice Thean found that TOC's arguments on the main issue regarding the scope of its class licence did not disclose an arguable case in favour of granting the remedies it sought.

TOC did not challenge IMDA's suspension and cancellation of its class licence, although it does not admit to the correctness of that decision.

It argued that the class licence covered only its two English websites, which it had registered with IMDA.

TOC argued that IMDA never asked it to apply for a class licence in respect of its Chinese website and that it was never suggested to its owner and chief editor Terry Xu that the class licence covered social media platforms.

It also argued that IMDA has no legal basis for prohibiting it from offering broadcasting services from outside Singapore.

IMDA contended that TOC had fundamentally misunderstood the licensing regime under the Act.

All computer online services provided by Internet content providers (ICPs) are automatically subject to a class licence by operation of law, the authority argued.

IMDA added that nothing in its Sept 14 letter to TOC purports to stop it from providing services from outside Singapore.

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Justice Thean said TOC's registration of its two main websites was independent of, and irrelevant to, the scope of its computer online services that were subject to the class licence.

"The registration requirement is a class licence condition that is imposed on the ICP by virtue of its status as a class licensee," she added.

The judge said TOC's objection to IMDA's prohibition against the provision of new services was premised on a misreading of the Sept 14 letter.

"The letter merely suspended (TOC's) class licence; it did not purport to prohibit the provision of services from other countries," she noted.

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