Regulation of online websites in Singapore
Media and Information Minister, Mr. Keheliya Rambukwella informed the Ministerial Consultative Committee on Mass Media on 21st November 2020 that mechanisms to regulate websites are to be introduced in the next few weeks. The Minister of Education Prof. G.L. Peiris also said that new laws introduced in Sri Lanka should be formulated after studying the new laws passed in Singapore to regulate the media industry. This article examines the regulation of online media in Singapore and the impact of such frameworks, if introduced in Sri Lanka.
Info-Communications Media Development Authority Act (IMDA)
In 2016, the Info-Communications Media Development Authority Act was enacted in Singapore. The Act also established an Info‑Communications Media Development Authority (IMDA) as a statutory body of the Ministry of Communications and Information (MCI). The IMDA is responsible for broadcasting and content regulation (irrespective of the transmission medium). The IMDA obtains instructions from the Cabinet and does not act as an independent public agency.
The IMDA is authorised to issue codes of practice, standards and guidelines on fair market conduct in the media industry and with regard to the provision of media services in Singapore.
Who is a regulated person under the IMDA?
“Regulated person” could be:
(a) a newspaper company; or
(b) the holder of a broadcasting licence or the proprietor of a newspaper, that is specified by the Minister, by notification in the Gazette.
The IMDA may also give directions to a regulated person, designated media licensee, or the owner or controller of an essential resource, on any provision of the Act or code of practice that would apply to them.
Where the IMDA is satisfied that a regulated person, designated media licensee, or the owner or controller of an essential resource, is in violation of the Act or any code of practice one or more of the following directions may be issued:
- A direction requiring that person, designated media licensee, owner or controller to comply with a particular provision or cease to infringe that provision;
- A direction specifying any procedure or action to be observed or taken by that person, designated media licensee, owner or controller;
- A direction imposing any restriction on the activities of that person, designated media licensee, owner or controller;
- A direction requiring that person, designated media licensee, owner or controller to modify or terminate any agreement, decision or concerted practice;
- A direction requiring that person, designated media licensee, owner or controller to modify or cease any conduct.
Therefore a newspaper company, holder of a broadcasting licence or the proprietor of a newspaper may be mandated to comply with a provision of the IMDA Act, modify or terminate any agreement that has been entered into, modify or cease any conduct and have any of their activities restricted.
IMDA and online news sites
Online news sites that report regularly on issues in Singapore are required by the IMDA to obtain an individual licence. This requirement applies to online news sites that report an average of at least one article per week on Singapore news and current affairs over a period of two months and are visited by at least 50,000 unique IP addresses from Singapore each month over a period of two months. Furthermore, individually licensed news sites will be expected to comply within 24 hours to the IMDA’s directions to remove content found in breach of content standards and will be required to put up a performance bond of S$50,000. The IMDA regulates the content of such sites and takes down sites found to be in breach of its rules. As the IMDA is not obliged to make its takedown orders public, it is not possible to determine how many sites have been taken down or how often. Implementation of a similar mechanism in Sri Lanka would require online news sites to obtain licenses under certain conditions and pave the way for the content of such sites to be monitored and censored.
In 2018, the IMDA ordered the States Times Review to remove an article alleging that Prime Minister Lee Hsien Loong was a key target of money laundering investigations into the Malaysian state fund. The IMDA warned that it would direct Internet Service Providers (ISPs) to restrict access to the site unless the article was removed. Upon the refusal of the State Times Review to remove the article, the IMDA directed ISPs to restrict access to the website.
The Online Citizen, one of Singapore’s longest-running news websites, was gazetted by the Prime Minister’s Office as a “political association” in 2011. This meant that it had to comply with political donation laws that banned it from receiving funding from foreign sources. In 2018, the website was removed from the list of political associations and registered with the IMDA under conditions that prevented the site from receiving any foreign funding. The IMDA registration rules prohibit foreign funding and require certain sites to provide details about funding sources which prevents sites from receiving grants and loans from foreign foundations. In 2018, the IMDA mandated that The Online Citizen may only accept donations from users willing to have their full names, identification numbers and Singaporean citizenship status handed over to the authorities.
Prohibitions on foreign funding for online news websites and limitations on domestic funding in Sri Lanka would infringe on the right to freedom of expression through the negative impact on the ability to produce critical daily news or regular investigative features.