Singapore’s new rules licensing news websites undercuts its status as a financial hub, Human Rights Watch said, urging the city to withdraw regulations it says discourage independent comment.
The rules introduced June 1 cast a chill over the city’s “robust and free-wheeling” online communities and limit Singaporeans’ access to independent media, Cynthia Wong, senior Internet researcher at the New York-based watch group, said in an e-mailed statement today.
Regulation requiring an initial list of 10 sites including one run by Yahoo! Inc. (YHOO:US) to get a license and pay a S$50,000 ($40,000) bond to be forfeited if it publishes “prohibited content” that “undermines racial or religious harmony” has drawn criticism from opposition groups. The rules don’t curtail individuals’ freedom of expression online, Singapore’s Acting Manpower Minister Tan Chuan Jin said this week, adding that the government is using similar rules for the print media.
“Singapore is placing its status as a world-class financial center at clear risk by extending its record of draconian media censorship to the digital world,” Human Rights Watch’s Wong said. “Websites will be forced into the role of private censors on behalf of the government.”
The rules seem intended to impose another check on popular websites rather than to reduce any genuine harms, the U.S. human rights group said.
Singapore dropped 14 places in a 2013 press freedom index published by Reporters Without Borders, ranking 149 out of 179 countries. It’s ranked one spot after Russia, and just ahead of Iraq and Myanmar.
The licensing regime is an extension of rules governing print media and aimed at managing content of news sites mostly run by the same parent companies, Tan said on a Channel NewsAsia panel discussion on June 4. The government also said in a statement it’s not clamping down on Internet freedom.
More than 150 Singapore websites and blogs blacked out their content yesterday in protest against the licensing rules, the Straits Times reported today. Some sites replaced their home-pages with a black screen saying “Free My Internet,” others included information about a planned protest at Hong Lim Park near the city’s financial district tomorrow, the newspaper said. The protest is scheduled at 4 p.m. tomorrow, according to the organizer’s website.
Further regulation is “redundant,” Alan Soon, Yahoo’s Singapore country manager and managing editor for Southeast Asia, said June 5 on the company’s news site for the city. The rules have created confusion and unsettled users and the media industry in the initial few days, he said.
Other sites affected by the rules include those run by Singapore Press Holdings Ltd. (SPH) and MediaCorp Pte, the country’s two biggest media companies. Singapore Press Chairman Lee Boon Yang was a former information minister, while MediaCorp, the operator of Channel NewsAsia, is owned by Temasek Holdings Pte, the state-owned investment company.
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