Barely 10 days after the new regulations for online media was announced by the Media Development Authority (MDA), advocacy group #FreeMyInternet organised a protest at Hong Lim Park which attracted approximately 2500 attendees. The protest was part of an ongoing campaign calling for the removal of the new regulations and amendments to the Broadcasting Act made by the MDA.
The new regulations and amendments, touted by the MDA as an update to ensure parity between news providers, has required 10 news sites including Yahoo! Singapore to be licensed. News sites would also be liable to be gazetted under the licencing network if they report at least 8 articles for 2 months, and if they are visited by at least 50,000 unique IP addresses from Singapore for 2 months. Netizens and the online community have generally responded with anger over the new regulations, which most of them feel is an attempt at regulating online media.
The #FreeMyInternet protest was preceded by a blackout of more than 150 participating blogs and a petition to rescind the new rules which has garnered more than 4,000 signatures.
The vague definition of news
The protest began to the tune of Redemption by Bob Marley (sung by Joshua Chiang), after which Andrew Loh, chief editor of publichouse.sg, began his introduction by highlighting the vagueness and opacity of the definition of news laid out by the MDA. “The footnote tells us what the MDA is really aiming to regulate,” said Andrew, who then went on to describe the importance of citizen journalism as an alternative to mainstream media.
Andrew Loh was followed by Ravi Philemon, blogger at raviphilemon.net, activist, and former chief editor of The Online Citizen (TOC). Calling for the deregulation of the mainstream press, he highlighted the unfettered power the MDA held with regards to its definition of a news site. Ravi cited the banning of a video of political exile Lim Hock Siew’s speech at a book launch filmed by filmmaker Martyn See as an example – no reason was given for the ban given by the MDA. Referencing Minister Yaacob Ibrahim’s statement on ‘reading the right thing’, he said, “The government wants us to trust them when it doesn’t even want to trust the online world.”
Next was Richard Wan, editor of TR Emeritus. Richard highlighted the rarity in which MDA issued takedown notices to websites on the Internet, which occurred on an average of 1.5 notices per year since 1996, which proved that the online space has been relatively law abiding. He spoke on existing regulations that already regulate the online space such as the Sedition Act and offences of contempt of court, as well as the rising anger citizens had over the government on the Internet. “Many on the ground are thinking that this sudden introduction of the new regulation is politically motivated to curtail criticism against the government,” he said, adding that, “We are currently like a kettle of boiling water… The last thing we should do is to stopper the kettle and prevent the steam from coming out.”
“They want us to read the right thing. But are they doing the right thing?”
Richard was followed by Roy Ngerng, who blogs at The Heart Truths providing social commentary and analysis. “They (the government) want us to read the right thing. But are they doing the right thing?” Roy proclaimed. Outlining bread and butter issues elderly Singaporeans suffer through, he goes on to proclaim, “Will you know all these if you had read the right thing? Will you know that there are Singaporeans who are suffering if we had the right thing?”
Roy went on to speak on the importance of online media as a voice for the disadvantaged. He condemned the way the regulations were hastily gazetted, stating “If the government had bothered to speak to anyone of us, we would have told them – who says we want articles to be taken down?” He added on with what he perceived as a potential threat to freedom of speech, stating, “When there are too many sites which are licensed, will we still be able to read? Will we still be able to know what is going on in Singapore? Will we still have a stake in our own country?”
Roy also spoke on his fears about the new MDA regulations, proclaiming, “(If) the government doesn’t take this rule down, Singaporeans, we will lose our own independence. We will lose our independence to read, to know, to think and to be who we are.”
Principles and hard truths
Andrew Loh followed on by reading out a speech written by writer and novelist Sudhir Vadaketh. “Although we disagree with something someone is saying online, we should fight for that person’s right to say it,” Sudhir wrote, adding that “Self-censorship is a terrible thing… All of us in Singapore are affected by self-censorship. It prevents us from having a richer, fuller dialogue.”
Andrew also read out the speech written by Rachel Zeng, an anti-death penalty activist. “Only through the process of being exposed to different perspectives, a society progresses intellectually. Since we do not get that from our mainstream media, or through our education system, we should do our brains a huge favour by letting the opinions remain as diverse as they can online,” she wrote.
Next to take the stage was consulting editor and co-founder of TOC, Choo Zheng Xi, who focused on the three hard truths he believed that the government needed to recognise with regard to the new regulations: The rule of law matters, the Constitution matters, and Parliament matters.
He added, “What kind of government threatens its people? The right to expression… is not a traffic offense, not smoking in public. These are rights that matter. The battle hasn’t ended, it’s just beginning.”
Young activists spoke against the new regulations
A series of young activists came on stage to speak out against the new regulations next, starting with Damien Chng, an anti-death penalty activist who blogs at We Believe In Second Chances. Stating that the Internet has allowed us to break from the monopoly of government control and mainstream media, Damien went on to comment that the government’s lack of faith in the maturity of the citizenry has been disappointing. He went on to warn that the government cannot choose to proceed into the future based on the prejudices of the past.
Next were blogger and student Jewel Philemon, 20 and filmmaker Nithun Nandakumar, 22, who spoke on their open letter calling for dialogue with Minister for Communications and Information Yaacob Ibrahim on the new regulation. Both are from Online/Offline, a platform that encourages public dialogue on issues.
“There is a notion that the youth of Singapore are apathetic… But no, young Singaporeans are not apathetic – the real reason why most of us are reluctant to speak up is the culture of fear that we are conditioned with, and the lack of hope that results from this fear,” said Jewel.
Nithun added, “I feel that, when you’re young… you’re brought up with an ideal world in mind. That what’s made the world is freedom, liberty, struggles, glorious ideals and that everything is fine… (and that) things are fine in Singapore. The shock comes when he/she steps out into the ‘real world’. When a first world government brings out such a law (like the MDA regulations), that young person would initially be confused, (then) disappointed… and over time, apathetic. Singapore cannot afford that apathy anymore, and that it’s changing is what we see here today.”
“Dialogue is the only way forward,” the filmmaker said, after announcing that the Minister has not responded to their invitation for dialogue.
Both speakers ended off with a message that one of the signatories of the #FreeMyInternet petition, who was 15 years old, sent to them. “The freedom of press is undoubtedly a human right, an important and crucial characteristic of a democratic society. The Internet has no doubt filled the gap (that) traditional media (left) in Singapore, with reports that do not and will never show up in our state-owned media.”
“We have to take ownership of our own country and our own media. We can’t divorce our own responsibility.”
Next was Visakan Veerasamy, who began his speech voicing his worry that “we might fall into the trap of being morally superior.”
“We have to sit down and listen,” Visakan said. He went on call for a dialogue between the government and the online community to find out what was in the best interest of Singapore “even if it is not politically convenient”.
Adding on, he advocated that Singaporeans take ownership of our own country and our own media instead of divorcing our responsibility to the Government.
Biddy Low, writer at publichouse.sg, spoke on her unhappiness over the Government’s restriction on civil society activism.
“We can take charge, but (only) within their paradigm. We can take charge, but (only) within their pattern. Excuse me, but I’m not interested in your pattern,” she proclaimed.
Referencing the speed at which the new regulations were gazetted, Biddy spoke on how the MDA had built a highway over Parliament. “If they (the MDA) are the highway, we (the people) are the ERP,” she said, adding, “It is not hysterical when all we ask is due process… It is not unreasonable to defend an ideal.”
The list of speakers ended with Leong Sze Hian. Speaking on behalf of MARUAH, he told the crowd that without the free Internet, there would not be the bloggers who ask the ‘tokong’ questions. He then went on to bring up some issues the online community have brought up, such as AIM, economic issues such as low economic growth and high inequality, and the liberal immigration policy. “Do you think you will ever get a headline that tells us ‘low growth’?” he questioned, referencing the development journalism principles that mainstream media abides.
Business as usual for bloggers?
The evening ended with a press conference, where a media statement was read out on behalf of the #FreeMyInternet collective, outlining the way forward for the movement, with a focus on public education.
“In the weeks to come, we will roll out material and programmes to educate members of the public and Members of Parliament about why the Licensing Regime needs to be withdrawn.
We do not rule out a dialogue with the government, but this dialogue needs to be a discussion on how the withdrawal of the Licensing Regime will take place, and should be a dialogue about how de-regulating the media environment can best be done to benefit Singaporeans.”
When asked out the future direction of their respective blogs, editors for TOC and publichouse.sg indicated that it would be ‘business as usual’.
However, Choo Zheng Xi from TOC reiterated what TOC mentioned in its first statement after the regulations were announced: that TOC would have to “reassess the viability of continuing the website in light of the significant financial and legal liability the new rules impose.”
Bloggers Universe Malaysia Gathering 2008 features two brainstorming sessions involving Speakers and Audience with the general theme of "TOWARDS A CIVIL SOCIETY".
Our initiative is mainly by a group of bloggers -- in association with the Centre for Policy Initiatives -- acting on the second annual event to mark World Press Freedom Day which falls on 3rd May. At bum2007, the Organising Committee indicated it would like to pass the baton to the AllBlogs Council to organise such events, but since its official registration is still pending, this Group of "lazy" bummers with not much on their hands after GE2008 unashamedly take on the task and challenge.:)