Why I'm not concerned about The Online Citizen

NOTICE: Given my current ambiguous status with TOC, I hereby declare that this post is entirely my opinion. I am not speaking in any capacity for The Online Citizen. Please wait until the end of the week for the official response.

The future of The Online Citizen (TOC) is now a major talking point in Singapore’s political Internet. On Monday, Prime Minister Lee Hsien Loong gave notice that he intends to declare TOC as a political association. Yesterday, the Media Development Authority requested TOC to register with the Authority.

When I read the reports, my first reaction was a single spoken word: “Meh”.

Okay, and a shrug.

For all the legalese being thrown at TOC, it’s just that. Legalese. I don’t really think it would influence TOC’s operations in any major way. I don’t welcome them, and I suspect TOC doesn’t, but the impact of these regulations are insignificant. For discussion’s sake, suppose TOC is gazetted and registers itself with the MDA.

As a political association, TOC will be banned from obtaining foreign funding. What I do know about TOC suggests that TOC is not beholden to any foreign organisation for funding, and comparatively little money comes from overseas anyway (I’m thinking anonymous donations on the Internet, though I could be wrong). It would reduce TOC’s potential sources of income, but that’s all. It would be an inconvenience for a cash-strapped oganisation, but TOC only really needs enough money to cover its relatively small operating costs. That money doesn’t have to come from overseas – there’s enough money in Singapore to support TOC; it just needs to be coaxed out.

Foreigners would be barred from participating in TOC’s events. I’m not too clear on how rigid this interpretation might be. For instance, if TOC were to hold a rally at Speaker’s Corner and a couple from Malaysia decides to wander in and take a look, I don’t know if TOC is obligated to shoo them away. I don’t even know what ‘participating’ entails. That being said, most of TOC’s activities are about local issues – the most notable exception being the rights of foreign and migrant workers – and these issues don’t really register on the world stage. I don’t really expect a high turnout of foreigners to begin with. This restriction would definitely reduce the number of potential participants in TOC’s future events, but not so much that these events would lose much, if any, impact in Singapore.

As per the Political Donations Act, TOC has 14 days to reveal the identities of its proprietors, editorial staff and administrators. TOC will also have to name a President, Treasurer and Secretary to prepare and verify reports on political donations for the Registry of Political Donations. TOC doesn’t have a policy of anonymity; indeed, everyone works under their real names, so nobody here is being threatened. The paperwork and verification of donations would be a hassle, but it’s just that. A hassle. The paperwork would, of course, take time away from TOC’s operations that could have been spent on running the website – but only time. It does not affect TOC’s people, product, purpose, mission or vision.

TOC may not accept anonymous donations above a total annual amount of S$5000, and will have to report the names of individuals who donate above $10000. Currently, TOC solicits for donations via credit card and Paypal through buttons on its website. Journalism.sg thinks these requirements may have a chilling effect on donations. TOC may have to ask its donors to give their names prior to donation, but are not obliged to report the names of people who donate less than S$10000. This might put off donors who don’t trust TOC’s confidentiality policies, and large donors who wish to be anonymous.

This would be a bit more of a hassle. Journalism.sg might be right in that lack of anonymity may discourage donations. But I have seen no evidence to suggest that requiring donors to name themselves would lead to a significant drop in donations. I have also seen no evidence that people who contribute to political associations will face repercussions from the State. But even if this would affect donations to TOC, TOC does not need a lot of money. Just enough to cover operating costs and to organise events – okay, and pay my so-called fees, but that comes last and I can drop that if needs be.

In the worst case scenario, TOC may have to get its members to shoulder part or more of the costs. This may be painful to swallow, but I believe TOC can handle it. To the extent of my knowledge, the members of TOC I have met so far come from middle-class or well-to-do families with few if any financial problems. It’s distasteful to be sure, but I think TOC will be able to spread the entirety of its operating costs among its members if necessary. My read on the group is that its core members (at the least) are highly motivated, and would be prepared to do this. But this scenario is highly unlikely. For one thing, I strongly doubt that donations will drop off to the point that this would occur. For another, given that TOC’s viewership seems to have doubled overnight (as per an announcement on the wall of TOC’s Facebook account), I would think there would be more people who are willing to donate to TOC now. The worst case is a long, long way off.

Realistically speaking, TOC would only be mildly affected by these changes. There would be more paperwork to do, some financial planning, maybe reduced impact on foreigners and possibly reduced anonymous donations. But just that. None of these regulations affect TOC’s people, product, mission, or vision in any way. On the other hand, TOC’s possible new status as a political association may make it that much more credible in local politics. If this were an attack on TOC and Singapore’s freedom of speech and expression, it is just a light tap on the wrist. There are worse ways to crack down on politics in Singapore.

Sources:

Journalism.sg

Regulating The Online Citizen: What will it mean for Singapore’s Top Alternative Site?

The Online Citizen

PM wants TOC gazetted as Political Association

MDA DEMANDS REGISTRATION OF TOC

Why I'm not concerned about The Online Citizen

12 thoughts on “Why I'm not concerned about The Online Citizen

  1. Actually, the only concern I had was that TOC could not continue to report during the elections. This would be critical if we had more silly instances like our ex-PM, current SM Goh canvassing for support outside a polling station when the laws on elections said candidates have to keep some distance away (let’s not even start with the stupidity of the court’s findings regarding this issue) and if the SPH was busy throwing claims and charges on behalf on its owners at all non PAP candidates, especially the valid ones like Philip J and Goh Meng Seng. Tang Liang Hong comes to mind, leading to his remarks that resulted in the lawsuits (that were processed by our objective courts very quickly) and the mareva injunction.

    I simply wanted to look at something other than the usual propaganda come election time. 🙁

  2. Interesting take on the issue. But then it’s curious why the initial reports on this site (and elsewhere) on the gazetting made it seem that much bigger a deal. TOC just has to be more ‘accountable’ now.

  3. Thanks guys.

    OnlineShmonline,

    I agree. The letter of the law says ‘participate’ in the GE. I don’t think reporting on it counts. But nobody has ever tried it before, and the law can be kind of grey here. Zheng Xi (the other Chief Editor) is a trained lawyer, though, and he might be able to make sense of it.

    EDIT: I’ve seen nothing in the law that stops TOC from reporting on the GE. Looks like I was wrong there.

    al,

    It really is curious. It’s not a big deal, really… Maybe it’s just the novelty of the situation, and the perception that the State is being heavy-handed again.

  4. Hey Benjamin,

    thanks for your insights. I have a few thoughts:

    1) Where in the letter of the law does it say that TOC cannot be involved in politics come GE and cannot support any candidate and party? That has been mentioned but I can’t seem to locate it in legislation.

    2) Should TOC register with MDA and as a political organisation, is it more liable to be sued by the government for its activities? Seems hard to establish. If it registers with the MDA, it would be bound by the Internet Code of Practice, which sets guidelines for Internet Content Providers. But is the ICP legally enforceable? If it is, then isn’t it enforceable under existing laws like the ISA and Sedition Act? And if that’s the case, what’s the big deal with registration?

  5. As a foreigner who resides in SG, and someone who enjoys reading TOC, the foreign involvement thing basically says that I could get into a lot of trouble if I were to write for TOC, found attending an event, donating money, etc. This sucks, as I am very passionate about fdw rights, and other issues that TOC writes about.

    1. Give some kopi-$$$ (angbao) to a local singaporean who in return donate it for you under his / her name?
      Technically speaking, the money legally becomes the propery of that local SG and whatever he does is up to him and his decision and it just happens that the 2 of you think the same…

      As mentioned above, TOC is not obliged to release the names of small amounts. Perhaps remain anom is possible too. I bet PAP also receives anom donations from everywhere and everyone (GST,ERP, CPF, blah blah)…

      I don’t read law and can’t be bothered to read through every aspect of the R&Rs, I rather use simple logic which apparently alot of SG R&R (well, same with other countries) dont have…

  6. Thanks Crystal. Fortunately, I think there are other ways to get your point across – like, say, starting your own blog!

    Hi Terence,

    You’re welcome.

    1. Okay, it looks like I didn’t do enough research… I got that bit from TOC’s original announcement. New Asia Republic thinks it’s a misinterpretation of the Political Donations Act. When I looked through the Act, I’m inclined to agree with NAR. I haven’t seen anything that says TOC can’t do anything about the GE.

    And…if you might have noticed, TOC has edited its post to reflect this. There’s no mention of the GE anymore.

    2. I don’t think TOC would be any more or less liable to be sued. As far as I can tell, lawsuits can only take place if articles or comments posted on TOC’s websites defame the Government. Current TOC policy is explicitly designed to avoid that without sacrificing its standards.

    The ICP isn’t a law; it’s a standard of behaviour. The ICP, however, is mandated by the law. (Broadcasting Act, Section 6) The MDA is empowered to enforce the ICP through sanctions should someone violate the ICP (http://www.mda.gov.sg/Documents/PDF/Policies/PoliciesandContentGuidelines_Internet_InterneCodeOfPractice.pdf) In effect, the MDA becomes the de facto punitive arm of the State in such a case. And yet…laws like the ISA and Sedition Act may be rolled out, too, as we’ve seen in the racist bloggers case. It’s a pretty grey area. (And is one of the reasons behind Bloggers 13’s activities)

    That being said, registration really isn’t a big deal in my eyes. I think it’s just a formality. Like dotting all the is and crossing all the ts. I can’t see how this would affect TOC’s operations – and ultimately, that is the only thing TOC will worry about.

  7. Hi Benjamin, would you have any objection if I reposted your post above in the TOC facebook wall to elicit comments? Thank you.

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