Wednesday 31 July 2013

News website, The Independent told to register under MDA licence rules

In complying, The Independent agrees not to accept foreign funds
By Tessa Wong, The Straits Times, 30 Jul 2013

A NEWS and current affairs website called The Independent, due to launch officially on Aug 9, will comply with a Government request to register under the Broadcasting (Class Licence) Notification.

As part of its registration, the online site agrees not to take foreign funds for its provision, management and/or operation.

The Media Development Authority (MDA), which asked the site to register, said yesterday the Government has "received specific information which gives it cause for concern over foreign interest to fund The Independent".

It did not elaborate.

But the registration would "not in any way" affect what it can publish, the MDA said in a statement.

"However, it will prevent The Independent from being controlled by, or coming under the influence of, foreign entities or funding, and ensure that Singapore politics remain a matter for Singaporeans alone," it said.

When contacted, the website's five-member management team said they had agreed at an early stage they would be a "purely Singaporean-funded media operation which does not accept foreign funds".

This is documented in their founding shareholder's agreement of April 19, it added in a statement last night.

"The Independent has not and will not ever come under the influence of foreign entities or funding," they said, adding they are "pleased" to register with the MDA.

The statement did not address queries from The Straits Times on whether it ever sought foreign funding and how it is currently funded.

Its team comprises Mr P. N. Balji, former editor-in-chief of the Today freesheet, former The Online Citizen editor Kumaran Pillai, lawyer Alfred Dodwell, research and consulting agency chief executive Leon Perera, and design agency owner Edmund Wee, a former design editor with The Straits Times.

The site is owned by local company Protegesoft, whose director is Mr Pillai.

Since 1996, all websites and Internet service providers (ISPs) automatically come under the Class Licence scheme, which subjects them to rules banning offensive content.

But not all are required to register.

Those asked to do so tend to include ISPs like SingTel, religious discussion sites, or political websites.

Sites that provide a subscription-based online newspaper could also be asked to register.

The Independent, whose web address was registered last month, states that it covers current affairs, economics and politics in Singapore, and plans to offer paid subscriptions to readers.

Registration does not impose any extra restrictions, except for those sites run by organisations classified as political parties or political associations.

These groups are prohibited from receiving foreign funding under the Political Donations Act and the MDA registration imposes the same restriction on their sites.

The Independent's case is unique because though it is not run by a political entity, it is subject to funding restrictions.

This is possible because the law states a site must register "in such form and manner as the authority may determine".

The MDA's statement yesterday said it is a "firmly established principle" that foreign entities cannot engage in Singapore's politics nor influence local media platforms, which are "prime vehicles for political influence".

Hence, laws such as the Newspaper and Printing Presses Act and the Broadcasting Act let the Government restrict ownership of newspapers and broadcast media.

The MDA said the need to prevent foreign influence on local politics through Singapore's media "remains the same whether in print, broadcast, or online", and it will look into incorporating more comprehensive safeguards when it reviews the Broadcasting Act next year.

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