'New rules do not target individual bloggers'

Bloggers have been and will continue to be free to comment on government policies and do not need to feel curbed by the licensing regulations on news sites instituted last month.

The Government has not stopped any of them commenting on the ruling since it kicked in, Communications and Information Minister Yaacob Ibrahim told Parliament on Monday.

And despite accusations that the move would stifle Internet freedom, this has not occurred, he noted, even as several bloggers critical of the rules watched from the public gallery as he fielded questions on the regulations.

"Since we... announced the law on May 28, nothing has stopped the bloggers from commenting," he said, reiterating the Government's stance that the change does not target bloggers.

The new rules, which require news sites to post a $50,000 performance bond and take down offensive content within 24 hours, kicked in on June 1, three days after the announcement.

The idea that the rules would have a chilling effect on bloggers is "far-fetched". Said Dr Yaacob: "I don't think they are so easily 'chilled'."

If future operators cannot afford the bond, the Media Development Authority (MDA) would be willing to set a "reasonable" amount in line with the news site's finances.

"The intention is not to prevent the site from operating under a licence. On the contrary, the intent is to allow a qualifying site to continue to operate, under an individual licence," said Dr Yaacob.

The whole idea behind the framework is to hold news sites to a higher standard than other sites, he added in response to questions in Parliament.

To qualify as a news site, they must have at least one news story on Singapore a week and attract at least 50,000 unique visitors from here in a month.

Some members pointed out that the definition for news sites was broad, and Non-Constituency MP Lina Chiam who filed an adjournment motion on the rules said this could lead Singaporeans to believe the rules had been "crafted to censor blogs, especially those that discuss politics".

Dr Yaacob said this was not the case, and that the regulations were squarely targeting news sites to hold them to "a higher level of responsibility". "We need to license you so that you know that whatever you do, you must do it well and do it accurately because you're reporting for the benefit of Singaporeans," he said.

He noted that bloggers, Internet commentators and niche websites provide their personal views and do not regularly report on news.

Hence they do not fall within the scope of the new licensing.

"However, should these websites morph into online sites reporting on Singapore news, MDA will have to separately assess if they meet the two criteria for licensing," he said.

Mr Choo Zheng Xi, part of the Free My Internet movement which opposes the rules, said he was "gratified" to see Dr Yaacob challenged by all three parties in Parliament - the ruling People's Action Party and the opposition Workers' Party (WP) and Singapore People's Party.

"We feel vindicated that our concerns over the new regulations are shared across the political spectrum," said the co-founder of sociopolitical blog The Online Citizen.

Separately, in a written response to a question filed by WP MP Chen Show Mao (Aljunied GRC) on the criteria for media accreditation, Dr Yaacob said factors include the reach and distribution of the news organisation, and its professional standing.

"The platform of the news organisation, whether traditional or online, is not a consideration. The licensing of online news websites is not related to accreditation and has no bearing on the criteria used to accredit the media organisations," he said.

The Government is discussing the licence details with the three companies which own the 10 news websites that come under the licensing framework - Singapore Press Holdings, MediaCorp and Yahoo Singapore.

Yahoo is the only one among the three that does not have press accreditation for its reporters.