January 12th, 2011
The heft of the government’s ‘light touch’ has descended upon local sociopolitical website The Online Citizen, just as it passed the four-year mark of its inception.
According to an announcement posted on the website on Tuesday, the government signalled its intent to gazette The Online Citizen as a political association under the Political Donations Act. The email sent by the Prime Minister’s Office a day earlier stated that the website had been marked as an organisation whose ‘objects or activities’ were mainly focused on politics in Singapore.
The Media Development Authority (MDA) fired its own salvo on Tuesday afternoon, sending the website’s editors an email requiring it to register under the Class Licenses Scheme (CLS). Under the CLS, websites that propagate, promote or discuss domestic politics or religion are required to register with the MDA.
These developments come after the website successfully held a political forum involving six Opposition party politicans in December. A People’s Action Party MP had also been invited but did not get permission to take part, the organisers said. The event, which was partly held to commemorate the website’s fourth birthday, was attended by over 350 members of the public and was widely reported in the local mainstream media.
The Online Citizen (TOC) was founded after the last General Election but has since emerged as the alternative website to watch in the run-up to the next one, widely expected to take place this year. TOC is the best organised and best supported, showing a capacity to report political events using volunteer reporters and organise events.
To comply with the Political Donations Act, the website has been given a 14 day period to reveal the identities of its proprietors, editorial staff and administrators. It also has to name a President, Treasurer and Secretary to facilitate the preparation of donation reports to the Registry of Political Donations.
If TOC is gazetted as a political association, the website will not be able to accept anonymous donations above a total annual amount of $5,000. At its recent political forum, it had asked participants to drop donations into a box, to cover the costs of the event. The Political Donations Act would limit how much it could collect through such means. Anonymous donations above the cap have to be either returned or handed over to the registrar.
The law also requires the gazetted association to list in its annual donation reports the names of individuals who donate above $10,000. This requirement may deter any large benefactor who wishes to donate privately to the TOC cause.
There is also a total ban on foreign funding. This would preclude TOC receiving money from sources such as the South East Asia Press Alliance or the Media Development Loan Fund, which were instrumental in the start up of Malaysiakini, the region’s most successful alternative online news site.
TOC’s website has an online donation facility displayed under every article. Readers can donate by credit card or PayPal. TOC promises anonymity. It is not clear at this stage how this fund-raising method will be affected by gazetting. It may mean that TOC would now have to ask readers to provide their names when they contribute money. Although TOC would not have to report these names to the authorities for donations under $10,000, readers who do not trust TOC’s promises of confidentiality may be deterred from donating.
According to the Ministry of Home Affairs, the Political Donations Act, which came into force in February 2001, was passed with the aim of preventing foreign groups from interfering in domestic politics through donations to political associations.
During the Second Reading of the Bill in Parliament in 2000, then Home Minister Wong Kan Seng justified the need for the legislation by invoking several instances in the past where foreign governments had purportedly funded proxies in Singapore to interfere in domestic politics.
In the same speech, Wong also outlined how decisions are made to gazette organisations as political associations. He said: “The Minister would have to consider carefully all relevant factors, such as its objects and activities, its links with foreign organizations and the support it receives from such foreign organizations”.
Responding to queries by the mainstream media, the Registry of Political Donations said the gazetting of The Online Citizen was necessary to ensure that it is not funded by foreign elements. It added that the website had “the potential to influence opinions and shape political incomes in Singapore”.
MDA has yet to comment publicly on its requirement for The Online Citizen to register under the CLS.
If The Online Citizen complies with MDA’s demand, it will become only the third website to register under the scheme, after local political thinktank ThinkCentre and the now defunct Internet community Sintercom.
It remains to be seen how MDA will justify requiring only The Online Citizen to register under the CLS, while turning a blind eye to the dozens of other local websites and blogs which discuss domestic politics on a regular basis.