After filing a police report on The Online Citizen for a case on alleged criminal defamation, the Info-communications Media Development Authority has dropped yet another "bombshell" on the independent news website this morning.
In a letter to TOC, IMDA states that the publication is only allowed to receive contributions from "verified local sources for the provision, management and/or operation of TOC website".
This means that for any contribution that does not come with the required personal information, IMDA will not recognise the amount as a "verified local source" and under the Form C1 which TOC has undersigned, the funds received is to be returned to the source or to be donated to any specified charity designated by IMDA.
Under the clause 2(d) which IMDA is referring to, it is understood that TOC has to declare its sources if there is reason to believe the funding comes from a foreign source. However, nothing states that IMDA have to obtain contributors' full name, ID number and Singapore Citizenship status to be a local contributor. In fact, the term "verified local source" does not appear anywhere in the form. IMDA seems to be imposing terms and conditions as it wishes.
What IMDA is imposing on TOC is far stringent than that required of political parties in Singapore. If one were to refer to the political donation form which political parties, one would note that the party will only have to declare if a single donor donates more than $10,000.
When TOC was formerly gazetted as a political association, we are only expected to ensure that donations to us are not of foreign source and need not declare our donations if the amount is under $5000. Now under IMDA's supposed requirement, any donation that TOC receives have to be named with one's NRIC number in order to be considered a local donation source.
In its two donation drives prior to the General Election 2015 where around $60,000 was raised, no such requirement was imposed by IMDA on the publication.
Also, MDA shared that out of so many social political sites in Singapore till date, only The Independent Singapore, Middle Ground (defunct) and TOC are being regulated under IMDA's regulation.
Let us be frank here, TOC isn't a charity which government is happy about and therefore, no one is comfortable having their names submitted to the government as a supporter of the site. IMDA may regards its actions as prevention of foreign intervention but I say what IMDA is doing, is sheer intimidation and harassment of the press.
In Oct 2017, Minister of Law and Home Affairs, K Shanmugam had said this in Parliament,
"take the RSF's Reporters without Borders' ranking on press freedom. I have spoken about this before in 2009. In 2008, RSF ranked us 144 out of 173 countries, below Guinea, Sudan, Pakistan, amongst others. Thus, I pointed out in 2009, that at about the same time RSF came out with their report, IHT had a news story on Guinea, in fact, it was one or two days before I made my speech. And IHT said that people were being gunned down by a "brutal military junta"; women were being raped on the streets. But in RSF's eyes, their press freedom was higher than ours.
And RSF, of course, continues to rank us poorly. In 2017, it ranked us 151 out of 180 countries, below countries like Guinea again; Gambia, where journalists were detained, media outlets shut down, Internet disconnected, international phone calls banned last year; South Sudan, where it was described as having one of the world's most serious refuge crisis, suffering the effects of a devastating civil war; Afghanistan is ranked ahead of us; Pakistan is ranked ahead of us. I would invite RSF to please go there.
So, we have to be discerning about these rankings and how they are done and what are the political objectives behind them. And sometimes, ignore them, when they are patently false and not hold them up as a mantra."
So we can see how the Minister is terribly wrong in his criticism of Singapore's press freedom ranking as the above measure taken by the media regulatory authority proves exactly why Singapore is ranked so abysmally low in press freedom despite the lack of violence against the journalists. In Singapore, even if journalists are willing to risk personal security or to lay down their lives to report the news, their outlets are prevented from operating optimally through direct or indirect means with the use of regulations. The Minister's words make no sense in light of this fact.
TOC has written back to IMDA for their response on the matter and will include their response when they reply.