TOC barred from posting on website, social media channels

It has repeatedly failed to comply with legal obligation to declare funding sources: IMDA

The Infocomm Media Development Authority (IMDA) has suspended The Online Citizen's (TOC) class licence to run its website and social media channels.

In a statement yesterday, the authority said the sociopolitical website has repeatedly failed to comply with its legal obligation to declare all sources of funding since around the middle of last year.

TOC is required to stop posting content on its website and social media channels immediately and disable them by 3pm tomorrow, IMDA said.

It added that if TOC continues to operate while in breach of the requirements, it may take steps to block access to TOC in Singapore.

If TOC "does not provide further information to bring it into full compliance", its class licence could be cancelled by Sept 28, said IMDA, adding that TOC's officers may be liable for criminal offences under the Broadcasting Act.

Other registered Internet content providers (ICPs) provide this information to be transparent about their funding, said IMDA.

TOC is one of two websites that are currently classified as registered ICPs by IMDA. The other is The Independent Singapore.

Past websites that had registered as ICPs include Six-Six News and The Middle Ground, both of which are no longer in operation.

Such websites, which focus on political issues in Singapore and engage in online promotion or discussion of these issues, must declare sources of funding.

"This is to prevent such sites from being controlled by foreign actors, or coming under the influence of foreign entities or funding," IMDA said. The requirement has been in place since 2013.

Mainstream news websites are not considered ICPs as they are regulated separately under the Broadcasting Act and the Newspaper and Printing Presses Act.

Under the regulations for ICPs, details on the sources of all funding must be declared by default.

While subscription and advertising revenue may be subject to less stringent requirements, IMDA said such sources of funding must not be used as a "loophole for foreign influence and funding".

It noted that TOC had offered a subscription framework under which those who paid a $120 yearly fee could have TOC write articles on a specified topic without having to declare their identity.

This is tantamount to letting subscribers commission content, which would require full disclosure of the source's identity, IMDA said, adding that foreign actors could potentially use this mechanism to pay TOC to write articles that influence domestic politics.

IMDA said the legal entity TOC Pte Ltd registered as an ICP in 2018 and declared its funding sources then. The Straits Times understands that the TOC website was operated by a different legal entity before 2018.

But since 2019, TOC has not fully complied with the obligation, IMDA said. The authority said TOC had failed to verify a donor and clarify discrepancies in its foreign advertising revenue in its 2019 declaration, for which it was issued a warning on May 4 this year.

"For its 2020 declaration, TOC repeatedly failed to declare all its funding sources despite multiple reminders and extensions," IMDA said. "TOC had also informed IMDA that it does not intend to comply with its obligations under the law."

TOC was given a final opportunity to explain its non-compliance by Monday.

In its response to IMDA on Monday, TOC offered to make a declaration that it was not receiving foreign funding on the condition that IMDA agrees not to seek further clarifications on its subscription framework and funding sources, the authority said.

But the requirement for ICPs to declare their sources of funding is a legal one, and not a matter for negotiation, said IMDA. It therefore rejected TOC's offer.

In a letter to IMDA posted on his Facebook page on Monday, TOC's lawyer Lim Tean accused IMDA of hypocrisy and inconsistency for allowing Critical Spectator's website and Facebook page to comment on Singapore affairs and politics despite it being run by a foreign commentator, Polish national Michael Petraeus.

Mr Lim said TOC intends to challenge the suspension of its class licence by way of a judicial review.

A version of this article appeared in the print edition of The Straits Times on September 15, 2021, with the headline 'TOC barred from posting on website, social media channels'. Subscribe