The prohibition for foreign funding stems from the longstanding principle that foreign entities are not allowed to engage in Singapore politics, Mr Wong reiterated, which "responsible operators do not disagree with".
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Here is MCI's response to Parliament Questions on registration of websites by Senior Minister of State for Communications and Information Lawrence Wong:
Mr Vikram Nair: To ask the Minister for Communications and Information (a) what are the factors which the Media Development Authority takes into account in deciding which websites are required to register under the Broadcasting (Class Licence) Notification; and (b) which websites have been asked to do so thus far.
MDA adopts a balanced and practical approach in its regulation of Internet Content Providers (ICPs). These include any individual in Singapore who provides any programme, for business, political or religious purposes, or any corporation or group of individuals who provides any programme on the Internet.
There are three forms of licences for ICPs under MDA's licensing framework - (i) an individual licence; (ii) an automatic class licence; and (iii) an automatic class licence with the requirement to register with the MDA.
Individual licences are issued to content providers which offer a television service through the Internet. Examples are MediaCorp's Toggle and xinMSN. Individual licences are also issued to news portals that report regularly on Singapore's news and current affairs and enjoy significant reach among Singaporeans. Ten online news licences have been issued since the scheme was implemented on 1 June 2013.
The rest of the ICPs are regulated under a class licensing regime that has been in place since 1996. They do not need to apply to MDA for individual licences, but are automatically class-licensed once they operate their websites. This remains the Government's approach of light-touch regulation. It remains the primary route through which the vast majority of websites on the Internet are licensed.
By virtue of their class licence, the ICPs have to comply with the conditions under the Broadcasting (Class Licence) Notification and the content guidelines in the Internet Code of Practice. ICPs that fail to abide by the Code can be taken to task by MDA by having their class licences cancelled or suspended. Since 1996, MDA has not had to cancel or suspend any ICP, which also means it has not had to prosecute any party.
Lastly, there are certain types of ICPs to which class licences are granted automatically, but with the condition that they register with the MDA. Paragraphs 3 to 5 of the Schedule of the Broadcasting (Class Licence) Notification spell out the types of ICPs that need to register with MDA. They include ICPs who are political parties registered in Singapore providing any programme through the Internet, and ICPs who are "a body of persons engaged in the propagation, promotion or discussion of political or religious issues relating to Singapore through the Internet". MDA also reserves the right to require ICPs who are in the business of "providing through the Internet an on-line newspaper for a subscription fee or other consideration" or who are "individuals providing any programme for the propagation, promotion or discussion of political or religious issues relating to Singapore through the Internet" to register with it. These are provisions already provided for and spelt out clearly in the Schedule, and the need to move from automatic class licence to class licence by registration only occurs when an individual or body meets the criteria spelt out in the Schedule.
Registration is straightforward and only requires the applicant to provide relevant information such as contact details, brief description of the website, key personnel operating it and any information that might shed light on possible foreign funding. There are currently 8 websites run by political parties, 39 websites involved in the "propagation, promotion or discussion of religious issues relating to Singapore" and 4 websites "involved in the propagation, promotion or discussion of political issues relating to Singapore" registered under this Notification.
As the regulator, MDA exercises the discretion to invoke the clauses consistently. If there are developments or trends suggesting a need to require registration on a new group or category of entities and to register them in a different form or manner, MDA will do so. It is in this context that I wish to elaborate on MDA's decision to register The Independent in July last year and most recently, The Breakfast Network.
As members would be aware, in July last year MDA asked The Independent to register under the Broadcasting (Class License) Notification. Although it describes itself as a newspaper, it was also clear from its stated aim of bringing in-depth perspective and analysis on political issues in Singapore that it intended to engage in the propagation, promotion and discussion of political issues in Singapore. Furthermore, the Government had received specific information which gave it cause for concern over foreign interest to fund The Independent. Hence, MDA asked the providers of the The Independent to register, and as part of the registration, to sign an undertaking not to receive foreign funding.
It is a longstanding principle that foreign entities are not allowed to engage in Singapore politics. Foreign interests should also not be allowed to control or worse, to manipulate our local media platforms, which are prime vehicles for influence or even subversion. This is not in itself new. All the 12 sites which MDA had previously registered for providing political content had been gazetted as political associations under the Political Donations Act and hence are prohibited from receiving foreign funding. What is different in the case of The Independent is that it had not been gazetted as a political association, and part of its business plan was to obtain subscriptions and advertising revenue. Therefore MDA had required, as part of the registration, that it signs an undertaking not to receive foreign funding. It is also for this reason that MDA had revised the registration forms to include such an undertaking. The undertaking only requires that the organisation does not accept foreign funding, and is not a blanket prohibition on funding, which would render the site's intended business plan unworkable.
The case of The Independent revealed potential problems when sites which engage in the "propagation, promotion or discussion of political or religious issues" structure themselves as corporate entities to receive investment, including from foreign sources. In the case of newspapers operating under permits issued under the Newspapers and Printing Presses Act, there are clear provisions to allow newspapers to be subject to provisions controlling foreign influence. The Broadcasting Act, which ICPs are regulated under, also recognises this principle but the class licence does not contain specific provisions against this as this particular scenario of foreign funding was not, back in 1996, recognised as a likely one.
Having noticed this, MDA decided that cases similar to The Independent, where sites operated by corporate entities that engage in the "propagation, promotion or discussion of political or religious issues" and which had a greater possibility of coming under foreign influence through foreign funding, would be dealt with in the same way. Hence, MDA asked The Breakfast Network to register.
MDA had earlier said that it will look into introducing more comprehensive safeguards within the Broadcasting Act to prevent foreign interests from influencing local politics through the Singaporean media, whether in print, broadcast or online. But it was necessary for MDA to act in the interim and to ensure that the providers of The Independent and The Breakfast Network are aware of the conditions from the outset, rather than for them to accept foreign investment into their corporate structure only to have to unwind it later. That would have caused them even more problems. The principle of not accepting foreign funding is something which responsible operators agree with. The Independent has stated that it accepts this principle.
In summary, let me stress that the class licence with the requirement to register is not new. It has been part of the licensing framework under the Broadcasting Act since 1996. Both the providers of The Independent and Breakfast Network had not been gazetted; but as websites run by corporate entities which are bodies of persons "engaged in the propagation, promotion or discussion of political issues relating to Singapore", and MDA saw the need for them to sign an undertaking not to receive foreign funding as part of the registration. The class licence with registration is an integral part of our licensing framework. It has been used selectively, but consistently. MDA will continue to adopt this approach.