IMDA warns of enforcement action against TOC over failure to declare all funding sources

IMDA said that it may take appropriate enforcement action if TOC is unable to provide good reasons for its non-compliance.
IMDA said that it may take appropriate enforcement action if TOC is unable to provide good reasons for its non-compliance.PHOTO: THE ONLINE CITIZEN

SINGAPORE - The Infocomm Media Development Authority (IMDA) on Tuesday (Sept 7) warned that it could take enforcement action against The Online Citizen (TOC) if it did not give good reasons for repeatedly failing to declare all its funding sources for last year.

IMDA said this was in spite of reminders and extensions, and it has asked TOC to explain its non-compliance.

TOC has informed IMDA that it does not intend to comply with its obligations under the law, IMDA said. IMDA did not elaborate on what action it might take.

In a media statement, IMDA said there is no reason for TOC not to comply with the declaration requirement as other registered Internet content providers furnish such information to maintain transparency of their sources of funding.

It noted that TOC complied with the annual declaration when it was first registered in 2018, but has not fully complied with this obligation since 2019.

The regulator added that TOC failed to verify a donor's identity and clarify discrepancies in its foreign advertising revenue in its 2019 declaration, for which a warning was issued on May 4, 2021.

"The threat of foreign interference in our domestic politics has always been present," said IMDA on foreign funding.

"Singapore was a target of two such operations in the 1970s involving newspapers The Eastern Sun and the Singapore Herald," it said.

"The newspapers received funding from foreign sources and ran articles that sought to undermine Singapore's nation-building efforts. There have also been reports from other countries that foreign players and their agents attempted to influence their politics by buying off political parties and individual politicians.

"We need to be cautious as the prevalence of the Internet and social media platforms makes it easier to influence large numbers of people."

In a Facebook post on Monday, TOC said that it has received a letter from IMDA on Monday telling the website to state by Sept 13 why it should not be suspended by the regulator.

"The key reason for TOC not filling up the declaration is because of IMDA's unjustified attempt to scrutinise how TOC conducts its business," TOC said.

It added that IMDA had asked TOC to justify the subscription fees it was charging, from which it collected about $9,200 in income for 2019.

TOC said IMDA justified the possible suspension of the website over a failure to identify a donor but TOC is willing to donate the amount from this donor to charity. It added that its failure to clarify discrepancies in its foreign advertising revenue was "a simple accounting mistake".

"TOC had offered to fill in the declaration if the subscription portion could be exempted from the declaration, (but) IMDA rejected the proposal," TOC said.

Responding, an IMDA spokesman said: "Subscription as a model is allowed. However, subscriptions should not be used as a loophole for foreign funding. That is why IMDA requires full transparency as to how TOC derives its subscription revenue."

Separately, news website The Independent Singapore, the only other website that is classified as a class licensee, said in a Facebook post that it complied with the filing requirements “because we believe Singapore needs credible alternative news media which are necessary for the country’s aspiration to be a First World nation”.

“Nevertheless, we hope the day will come when such a licensing scheme becomes unnecessary,” said its consulting editor Tan Bah Bah in the post on Tuesday.

“The annual filing process can be onerous but not stifling. We generally find IMDA officers to be professional in their conduct and in the manner they discharge their duties,” the post added.

Last week, the High Court awarded Prime Minister Lee Hsien Loong a total of $210,000 in damages for two defamation suits he filed over an article published on the TOC website. PM Lee had separately sued TOC chief editor Terry Xu and Ms Rubaashini Shunmuganathan, the Malaysian author of the article that was published on Aug 15, 2019.

The article had quoted a Facebook post by PM Lee's sister, Dr Lee Wei Ling, which said that their father, founding prime minister Lee Kuan Yew, had been misled by PM Lee into believing the family house at 38 Oxley Road had been gazetted by the Government, causing him to change his will to bestow the house to PM Lee.

The High Court found the article defamatory as it imputed that PM Lee had been dishonest with Mr Lee Kuan Yew.