Sunday, 24 August 2014

MDA scraps self-classification scheme for arts groups

Proposal for self-classification dropped by MDA
It removes controversial scheme from list of planned amendments
By Corrie Tan, The Straits Times, 23 Aug 2014

THE Media Development Authority (MDA) is dropping a controversial scheme that would have allowed arts groups to give age-appropriate ratings to their own works in line with the authority's classification code.

This comes after arts groups strongly opposed the Arts Term Licensing Scheme when the MDA launched a public consultation exercise on May 12. Artists' network Arts Engage released a position paper detailing its objections on May 30, signed by at least 45 groups.

The MDA is now removing the scheme from its list of proposed amendments to the Public Entertainments and Meetings Act. Nor will it implement a pilot run of the scheme that had been planned for last month.

Instead, the MDA will continue to assess each production from its 80 active licensees, including arts groups and event organisers, and give them advisories or ratings.

Amendments to the Act, to be tabled in Parliament at an unspecified date, include licensing virtual performances the same way as a live event at the same location, and allowing the MDA to investigate arts entertainment breaches instead of subjecting organisers to police action.

On arts term licensing, Ms Koh Lin-Net, chief executive of MDA, said: "We appreciate the very useful dialogues we had with Arts Engage, where we identified areas where we could work even better together. However... we realised that it was not a matter of whether or not the scheme could have been better designed. Rather... there were fundamental differences in views which could not be resolved."

This was in spite of three meetings last month between the MDA, Arts Engage and representatives from arts groups. One difference, she said, was over the current "Not Allowed For All Ratings" category, effectively a ban, which arts groups disagree with. Artists also wanted to be given autonomy in their application of classification guidelines, and took issue with the penalties for "misclassification".

While the scheme would have substantially cut red tape, artists felt that appointing individuals from within the company to do the work of the MDA would prompt self-censorship.

They expressed concern over what they felt was inadequate consultation with artists on classification guidelines, suggesting that the authority delay the scheme's implementation and hold further public engagement.

In its closing statement, the MDA said "classification guidelines need to reflect the social sentiments of the wider community, which may at times run counter to the views of some arts groups". The current guidelines were launched in 2008 and refined last year.

In response, Arts Engage said in a press statement yesterday: "Given that arts groups are meant to be the key beneficiaries of the scheme, (it) should not just be implemented for the sake of administrative convenience, but also seek to protect the creative process and improve the environment for art-making in Singapore."

The MDA is planning to embark on a comprehensive survey - reviewing the standards for classification of arts content - with the results expected to be published in the first half of next year. The findings may influence how it adjusts its guidelines.

Former Arts Nominated MP Janice Koh called the process of engagement between the MDA and artists a "new normal". "It is probably the first time we've had such in-depth discussions on the topic of arts regulation."

She hoped the MDA would conduct a more focused survey of arts audiences and their expectations of ratings and advisories. Arts Engage also recommended that the MDA consider running a pilot of the Arts Term Licensing Scheme that accommodates its main concerns.

MDA scraps self-classification scheme for arts groups: What's the controversy about
The Straits Times, 23 Aug 2014

The Media Development Authority (MDA) said on Friday it will scrap a controversial licensing scheme that would have allowed individual and arts groups to self-classify performances.

This comes after 45 arts groups registered strong opposition to the scheme when the authority launched a public consultation exercise on the proposed changes on May 12. They signed a position paper released by the artists' network Arts Engage on May 30, which detailed their objections to the scheme.

Several meetings were held between the MDA and the arts groups in July, but "there are certain expectations of Arts Engage that MDA will not be able to meet", the authority said on Friday. These included the expectation of autonomy in the application of arts classification guidelines, no "Not Allowed For All Ratings" category (effectively a ban on a work), and no punitive measures regardless of the type of breach, save for a revoking of the term licence.

We look back at the controversy over the proposal:

1. What's the scheme about?

The Arts Term Licensing Scheme, which is optional, allows individuals and groups to self-classify performances with age-appropriate ratings. The MDA had planned to include the scheme in its list of proposed amendments to the Public Entertainments and Meetings Act.

Currently, the MDA assesses every single production - a process which can take up to 40 days. It then gives it an age-appropriate advisory or rating.

Under the proposed scheme, groups can apply for two types of licences. Tier 1 licences allow for the self-classification of General-rated performances, suitable for all ages. However, unscripted performances, or those touching on race, religion or politics, will still have to be submitted to the MDA for licensing.

Tier 2 licences allow for the self-classification of all performances rated up to R18, restricted to those aged 18 and above, but unscripted and outdoor performances with an Advisory, Advisory 16 or R18 rating must be individually licensed by the MDA.

To take part in the scheme, arts groups have to appoint an MDA-registered content assessor, who will be trained in classifying each show according to MDA's classification code. Licensing officers from MDA have the authority to reject groups' classifications and revoke their licences.

Groups whose content assessors misclassify performances can face a fine of up to $5,000, and may have their licences revoked. Those who disagree with the licensing officer's decisions can appeal to the Minister.

2. What's the idea behind the scheme?

The MDA views this as a step towards "co-regulation", its term for empowering and working together with artists to define classification boundaries. The idea for co-regulation was recommended during both the 2003 and 2010 Censorship Review.

The scheme was meant to "facilitate the creation of an environment which allows arts practitioners to undertake greater ownership and responsibility for their content in ensuring it meets community standards", the MDA said then.

Getting arts groups to self-classify performances would also cut administrative red tape, resulting in cost and time savings. The scheme being optional, those who did not wish to take part could continue to submit their individual applications to MDA.

The MDA had planned to implement a pilot run of the scheme in July. Implementation, however, was put on hold following objection from the arts groups.

3. Why were arts groups against it?

Artists argued that it would pass the responsibility of censorship from the MDA to the artist, effectively encouraging self-censorship and undermining artistic integrity. They were also wary of penalties they would incur for misclassifying a performance.

On May 30 this year, 45 arts groups registered strong objections to the scheme in a position paper addressed to the MDA. The 12-page paper, submitted by artists’ network Arts Engage, had the backing of industry heavyweights such as the Singapore Dance Theatre and Singapore Repertory Theatre, and traditional arts companies such as the Chinese Theatre Circle.

The arts groups took issue with the requirement that content assessors had to comply with the MDA's classification guidelines, pointing out that not all artists agree with the guidelines.

For instance, it is subjective judgment whether a performance merits an Advisory 16 classification - no age restriction imposed but it suggests that the content may not be suitable for younger audiences - or labelled R18, restricted to those aged 18 and above. The most stringent classification is Not Allowed For All Ratings - which is effectively a ban.

There was also concern that some arts groups might end up opting for a stricter classification to avoid being penalised. Groups whose content assessors misclassify performances could face a fine of up to $5,000, and may have their licences revoked.

Arts Engage, in its position paper, says the penalty reflects a double standard, as licensing officers in MDA are not liable to be penalised for misclassifications. Rather than punishing arts groups for not classifying correctly, the paper argues that artists should have the right to open a dialogue with anyone who complains against the rating given to a performance.

On Aug 22, the MDA released its closing note to the public consultation on proposed amendments to the act:

Watch what the artists have to say about the scheme:

A listening ear for the arts community
Editorial, The Straits Times, 1 Sep 2014

ARTS groups would be buoyed by the Media Development Authority's (MDA) decision not to proceed with a scheme that would have permitted the groups to give age-appropriate ratings to their own productions in line with the authority's classification code. What the MDA saw as co-regulation - one interpretation of which is that it would have entailed liberalisation of the existing licensing regime - the arts community viewed as self-censorship and not empowerment. This difference had the classic makings of a dispute in which the State could have used its legislative powers to override the interests and concerns of a particular group. That would have been commonplace in an earlier era of Singapore's political and artistic development.

Instead, the authority chose to engage the arts community through further extensive rounds of consultation. When these revealed irreconcilable differences, the MDA proceeded to drop the controversial Arts Term Licensing Scheme. In doing so, it showed its capacity to agree to disagree instead of viewing the State-arts relationship as a zero- sum game. This is a healthy development for society at large as it matures. Indeed, depending on the nature of the issue, more could be done to have in-depth discussions with affected groups when drawing up schemes that are likely to attract deep and spirited opposition. That way, the groups' initial reservations could be reflected in a proposed scheme before it is made public and thrown open for a further and wider round of consultations.

Meanwhile, the engagement between the MDA and artists' network Arts Engage over the scheme reiterates some of the fundamental tensions in the relationship between the State and the arts. Governments do not indulge in special pleading when they seek to regulate the arts on the basis that they are mandated to provide security, order and continuity to citizens: This is why governments exist at all. However, arts practitioners, too, are honest when they argue that their works flourish in portraying the realms of conflict and change, two aspects of the human condition that find their finest expression in the artistic imagination.

There is no state from which the imagination has been banished, but there also is no state where the arts rule. The challenge lies in finding a balance between the competing agencies of art and order, each with legitimate interests in its own sphere. Each country will seek a balance on its own terms, and the balance itself will shift with the times. This is what is happening in Singapore. This process will benefit from the finesse displayed by the MDA in its handling of the scheme. There were no losers in this controversy.


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