Clarity given to Net community 'can be improved'

Clarity given to Net community 'can be improved'

The Government's move to require news and sociopolitical websites to register has opened it to criticisms. While it says its goal is to prevent foreign funding, the Internet community sees a clampdown under way. PAP MP Zaqy Mohamad, who is the chairman of the Government Parliamentary Committee for Communications and Information, tells Rachel Chang that he sympathises with sites who are facing "shifting goalposts", but that the regulator is also trying to evolve.

The Media Development Authority (MDA) spent the past week engaged in a war of words with the Breakfast Network, a website that chose to shut down rather than to register. How did this happen?

It could have been handled much better by both sides. The whole uproar became public and when that happens, it makes it very difficult for the regulator to compromise.

And for members of the public, it was even more difficult because it became so confusing. Questions that were put to me were, how does MDA pick who to register? Is this different from when Yahoo was asked to register? So I think it's important that a few things are cleared up.

MDA approached Breakfast Network because there was word that (Breakfast Network founder) Bertha Henson was setting up a company, which basically means there is an intention to make it a profit-making organisation. When such an entity deals with politics, the age-old policy kicks in - we don't want foreign interference.

That's the root of it. It's not about the content of what the website posts. Bertha herself has said, MDA has not interfered in the content.

Won't this just drive netizens "underground"?

Yes and no. All the Government wants is for people to declare their funding. I do sympathise with Bertha in a certain sense. She's a veteran journalist, she knows where the lines are in terms of responsible, non-defamatory content. I think it's unfortunate that she decided not to register and to close down instead. But for someone with certain ideals and creative vision, I can understand that this seems like a matter of principle.

Apart from matters of principle, I don't see any challenges in identifying your editors and your sources of funding. I think the Independent (another website that submitted registration forms to MDA) is still running nicely. They could be the beacon of success, and others could want to follow.

Whatever the reasons for not registering, this could have been handled better. This is not a new policy, but a new process. It could have been fine-tuned for the online media space.

Many would find the "foreign funding" line drawn here to be arbitrary. A blog or website that has not registered to be a company could also be receiving foreign funding, but MDA leaves them alone?

I know. If that is found to be true, then I suppose there are other ways to approach it. You could find a thousand and one loopholes in a certain sense.

But I think the amount of resources you have as a company compared to when you're an individual is very different. The amount of influence you have, the amount you can sell advertising for. There would also be a difference between influence and credibility of a company, compared to an individual blogger.

In 2011, the Government gazetted The Online Citizen as a political association, saying that "the site had the potential to shape political outcomes here". This means that under the Political Donations Act, it cannot receive foreign funding. Is the Government just finding different things to throw at different sites?

The amount of clarity given to the Internet community can be improved. This is one area where there needs to be more government engagement, so that people don't get into a situation where, like Bertha, all of a sudden you trip over a regulation without knowing it was there.

We need to lay it all on the table and engage the netizens. My sense is that these are just age-old policies being ported into the Internet space (but) there is a lot of suspicion that MDA is trying to kill off sites one by one.

Why has there been so little transparency? Is there actually a roadmap?

It's worthwhile noting that the Internet space is quite new. The Government is trying to adapt as well, so some of this comes out quite suddenly. But it also boils down to communication and preparing the community to what is the philosophy, the principles here. With it happening so suddenly, people feel like the goalposts have changed. But it's an evolving space in which the regulations will evolve for some time to come.

Some are asking why MDA is going after sites that are actually the more rational, responsible ones while those which post racist content or falsehoods are left alone.

But it was never about the content. MDA is not concerned about the content. I do empathise with the rational sites, though. They were trying to play by the rules and find that the goalposts are moving. This is something that could have been done better.

Do you think the Government and the regulator are interested in taking the path of engagement and transparency that you are advocating?

That's beyond my pay grade (laughs). I think it will come to an equilibrium. The approach has to be one of soft power as you deal with a different generation.

I think the fact that the regulators have not gone after content shows a lot of difference. That there has been no interference in what has been posted on many of these websites shows a generational shift. That's a fundamental shift compared to how censorship was done in the past, in the 1960s and 1970s.

Turning to the issue of the recent petition for Muslim women to be allowed to wear the hijab in uniform, the Government has mounted a strong defence that it must guard the secular "common space" in the face of such demands from all religious and racial groups. What's your take?

The last time this came up was in 2003, and it was confined to a smaller group then, who were asking for the hijab to be allowed in schools.

The difference between then and now is two things: one is that there is increasing religiosity, not just among Muslims but across the religions. In the past, the women that you see wearing the hijab are not the educated ones, but now, more and more professional women are wearing it, and want to wear it in the workplace.

The second thing is that the community is more vocal and more assertive and will push back more. But when handling these issues in a secular country, a level of equity is necessary.

A good parallel is the issue of Edusave accounts for kids in madrasahs. The issue came up for many years, with people asking for this. But when the change was finally made (this year), it was not just for madrasahs but also those in private institutions and kids who are home-schooled. Madrasah kids are actually only a small number of the total number to benefit from the change.

Once you give it to madrasahs, you have to give it to everyone (outside of the state schooling system) so the issue is never just about one demand. It's about how to move in a way that's equitable to all.


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