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Singapore Broadens Censorship of Online News

Ilo Ilo Cannes Directors Fortnight Still - H 2013
Anthony Chen's "Ilo Ilo" is the first Singaporean feature to win a major award at Cannes.

The clampdown has put a damper on the government's celebration of its support for Singaporean director Anthony Chen's "Ilo Ilo," which won the Camera d’Or at Cannes on Saturday.

The Singaporean government on Tuesday introduced new measures designed to control Internet news sites that report regularly on the city-state’s politics and current affairs. The move has led to a wave of criticism from local media outlets and opposition political groups, which have labeled the measures “regressive” and harmful to the territory’s already curtailed press freedoms.
The regulations will initially affect 10 news sites that cover Singapore, including a site owned and operated by Yahoo and several outlets run by two local media groups with ties to the Singaporean government.

The new rules, introduced by Singapore’s Media Development Authority, require that the sites apply for individual licenses, which will be renewed annually. The sites will then need to pay a “performance bond” of about $40,000 (50,000 Singaporean dollars) and are required to remove any content deemed objectionable within 24 hours. The censorship framework is an extension of existing regulations for all Internet sites in the country, which ban any content perceived as offensive to morality, state security, public interest and social harmony.

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Many observers expect that the regulatory regime will soon be broadened to apply to additional local news sites, as the rules are loosely defined as applying to all sites that report on Singapore at least once a week and receive a minimum 50,000 unique visitors a month from within the city-state.

A government minister told local press that the MDA plans to pass laws next year to include overseas sites that report on Singapore under the new licensing requirements.

"We are not in a position to respond until we receive the actual license conditions for review," Alan Soon, Yahoo's Singapore country manager, said in a statement to the Wall Street Journal.

Alex Au, a prominent local political blogger, told the Journal that new laws will “have a chilling effect on the online media," since regulators will be able to issue censorship requests without transparency or public scrutiny.

In public statements made Wednesday, opposition parties Singapore Democratic Party and National Solidarity Party called the new regulations a “regressive” move that will hamper the development of the local media industry.

Singapore has been run by a single party -- the People’s Action Party -- since 1959. In the 2011 Singapore general election, the PAP won 81 of the 87 contested seats in the Singaporean parliament. Despite its repressive grip on local media, the PAP has been credited with steering the country into a period of widespread wealth and prosperity. According to a report by Boston Consulting Group last year, one in six Singaporean households have disposable private wealth of over $1 million, excluding property, businesses holdings and luxury goods.

REVIEW: Ilo Ilo

But many observers are now saying the tight control of the media is no longer justifiable, given the territory’s high level of development and stability.

"It's hard not to see how this is another attempt to control media -- local and international -- by the Singapore government," Bob Dietz, Asia coordinator for the Committee to Protect Journalists, a U.S. based press-freedom watchdog, told the Journal in its report. "Its justification used in the past that strict media controls are necessary to squelch violent political dissent is simply no longer valid. It's hard to argue with Singapore's economic success. But the disconnect between its economic freedom and media freedom seems to be growing too large."

In a case of one step forward, one step back, the clampdown and its backlash comes just as the Media Development Authority was celebrating a milestone in its success at nurturing Singapore’s growing screen industries.

Three days before the new Internet censorship scheme was introduced, Singaporean director Anthony Chen won the prestigious Camera d’Or for his debut feature Ilo Ilo at the Cannes Film Festival, where it played in the Directors' Fortnight. The film, which was supported by MDA grant schemes, is the first Singaporean feature to win a major award at Cannes.

“Our focus in nurturing local filmmakers is beginning to bear fruit,” Yeo Chun Cheng, assistant CEO of MDA recently told The Hollywood Reporter. “Singapore has gone from producing six features in 2009 to 12 in 2012.”

Share of box office for domestic Singaporean films also grew from $5.06 million to $8.03 million over the same period. Last February, local hit Ah Boys to Men 2, from director Jack Neo, became the highest-grossing Singaporean movie ever, earning $6.36 million and topping Hollywood imports such as Spider Man 3 and Harry Potter and The Deathly Hallows: Part 2 on the all-time local charts.