Killing them softly

Singapore’s approach may be more subtle, but its new internet laws echo the strong-arm tactics used by regional governments to silence free speech

Chris Swanicke
August 22, 2013
Killing them softly
Paranoid policies: protesters at Singapore’s Hong Lim Park walk past a mock gravestone that reads “RIP Freedom of Speech” during a protest against new licensing regulations imposed by the government for online news sites in Singapore, June 8, 2013

More than 160 of Singapore’s most popular news blogs went dark on June 8. The protest was a cry for help against regulatory changes that would effectively shut down independent online media in the city-state.

The regulations are part of a quiet censorship that has become popular with Southeast Asian governments, which are increasingly wary of bloggers and social media activism.

Bloggers worry that citizens aren’t aware of how effective this soft approach is, or of its far-reaching consequences.

“Very few people in Singapore know what these regulations are about and why they are so dangerous,” said Choo Zheng Xi, co-founder of The Online Citizen blog, after a protest at Hong Lim Park on the day of the blackout.

Xi is a member of the coalition of bloggers, #FreeMyInternet, that came together following a new bonding requirement handed down by Singapore’s Media Development Authority (MDA). The new rules require a nearly $40,000 bond be posted by online news sites in Singapore, to be forfeited if MDA-prohibited content is not removed within a 24-hour notice period.

The MDA says the bond puts online news sites on the same regulatory ground as niche broadcasters. Yet the changes give the government de facto veto power over online news content.

“It would effectively cripple us,” said Howard Lee, spokesman for #FreeMyInternet and also deputy editor of The Online Citizen, an online portal that covers stories that mainstream media cannot or refuse to tell. “A lot of socio-political blogs are run by individuals, who do not have the financial capacity to muster these funds.”

The protests in June drew more than 2,000 people, according to #FreeMyInternet, and helped bring the issue to the attention of citizens. “These regulations were not passed with consultation… were not passed and run by the public,” Xi said, adding that the primary goal of the blogger coalition is to educate the public and pressure parliament to remove the new rule. “We intend to continue explaining how [regulations] could impact community websites.”

The new regulations are only the latest set of obstacles facing bloggers in Singapore. Lee says the government often refuses to communicate with online news sites, inhibiting their reporting. “Public cases of legal action against bloggers also encourage self-censorship,” Lee continued. This creates an environment in which bloggers “err on the side of caution rather than risk shutting down”, Lee said.

It’s a soft approach to censorship that is increasingly common amongst governments in Southeast Asia. In Cambodia, the National Election Committee (NEC) issued vague warnings to bloggers that they should behave in the run up to the Kingdom’s elections in late July.

In May the NEC warned bloggers not to “provide wrong information about the election (especially the date of the election), create fear, confusion or a loss of confidence in the secrecy of the vote”.

“When we have a complaint, we will take legal action,” NEC secretary-general Tep Nytha told The Cambodia Daily. Such legal action could include fines of about $6,250 for violations of speech laws.

Kounila Keo, a Cambodian writer and the founder of Blue Lady Blog, was one of many journalists worried over the committee’s warnings. “When the NEC issued that statement, it was a sign that they are beginning to take what we say online seriously,” she said. “That statement won’t just stifle the speech of the bloggers, but also other online citizens and activists.”

Keo says bloggers lack a “freedom of expression” in Cambodia that statements like those from the NEC only reinforce. “Not many people dare to go overboard about what they want to express,” she said, adding that most people self-censor by avoiding political topics, which can be deemed “highly sensitive”.

To avoid legal consequences, political bloggers may adopt pseudonyms or post anonymously, creating a problem for censors.

However, regional governments are finding ways to lift the internet’s cloak of anonymity. In 2012 the Cambodian government enacted a law requiring internet cafes to install surveillance cameras. In Vietnam, identification is required at public internet locations.

Reporters Without Borders listed Vietnam among just five countries – including Bahrain, China, Iran and Syria – classed as “enemies of the internet” in a 2013 report based on an evaluation of internet regulations around the world.

The Vietnamese cyber police have proven adept at outing anonymous bloggers, and the government’s approach to internet censorship has not been as gentle as some of its Asean neighbours. In 2011, popular pro-democracy blogger Lu Van Bay was sentenced to four years in prison after being found to be blogging under a false name. Bay is one of 35 bloggers currently serving prison time, and targeted campaigns are underway to identify writers behind the most popular rogue blogs.

More than 74% of Vietnam’s internet service providers are run by the state, and the government uses a system similar to China’s notorious ‘great firewall’ to block sites deemed offensive or subversive. While workarounds exist, namely using virtual private networks (VPNs) to mask internet activity, they are unreliable, and it is a game of cat and mouse for those trying to bypass internet restrictions.

A fear shared by bloggers across the region is self-censorship. Most blogs are run by individuals for little or no pay, and whether the threat is jail time or stiff financial penalties, many individuals may choose to play it safe rather than see the government wreak havoc on their blogs – or lives. “The government holding a gun to our heads… is a far-fetched concept in Singapore,” blogger Lee said. Still, he says online activists lack a “fundamental freedom to operate”, and face new regulations that would shut down the majority of blogs operating today.

In effect, Singapore’s soft-handed censorship may result in similar outcomes to Vietnam’s more harshly criticised censorship regime. It’s a result bloggers like Lee, and #FreeMyInternet, hope to bring to the public’s attention.

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