TOC Ltd says MDA 'unjust' to order return of $5k to UK firm

Internet content provider The Opinion Collaborative yesterday accused the media regulator of being "unreasonable and unjust", in an ongoing dispute over foreign funding.

It has asked the Media Development Authority (MDA) to withdraw an order for it to return $5,000 to a British company.

Among its contentions is that the MDA had taken too long to ask for the money to be returned.

TOC Ltd took the money from Monsoons Book Club (MBC) in a sponsorship deal for an essay contest it organised on socio-political website The Online Citizen last year. It stopped managing the site last September.

On March 4, MDA ordered TOC Ltd to return the money to MBC within 30 days, saying TOC Ltd had breached licensing conditions as MBC is a "non-commercial foreign source". TOC Ltd, registered under the Broadcasting (Class Licence) Notification, cannot receive foreign funds for the provision, management and operation of the website, "except for bona fide commercial purposes".

On March 9, TOC Ltd asked MDA to explain its decision. On March 17, MDA's licensing division director Yuvarani Thangavelu wrote back, saying that since MBC is a not-for- profit private company incorporated in Britain, it "clearly falls within the definition of a 'non-commercial foreign source' ".

It is also a "foreign non-governmental organisation" as well as a "foreign source that is not primarily engaged in commerce".

Hence, any advertising revenue TOC Ltd receives from MBC would "be treated as not being for bona fide commercial purposes".

Releasing the letter to the press yesterday, TOC Ltd director Howard Lee said in his reply that this classification of MBC was "completely baseless".

He said MBC, registered under Britain's Companies Act, "is for all intents and purposes an entity which is primarily engaged in commerce". Also, MBC, which calls itself a "non-profit making association", saw its deal with TOC Ltd as part of an advertising campaign.

Mr Lee also took issue with MDA for notifying TOC Ltd of the decision only this year. He said TOC Ltd had indicated that MBC was a "foreign source" last May, and had declared the funds on Nov 18.

Ms Yuvarani had said the onus was on companies to ensure they did not receive funding in breach of licensing conditions.

But Mr Lee said it was unreasonable for MDA to expect a "small enterprise like TOC Ltd" to return the funds after a long time had elapsed.

MDA said TOC Ltd could have its class licence suspended or cancelled, and could be fined if it does not return the money.

A version of this article appeared in the print edition of The Straits Times on March 25, 2016, with the headline 'TOC Ltd says MDA 'unjust' to order return of $5k to UK firm'. Print Edition | Subscribe