AIMS’s final submission to MICA — my view of its recommendations regarding online political content

Written by Ng E-Jay
03 December 2008

The Advisory Council on the Impact of New Media (AIMS) has submitted its final paper to the Ministry for Information, Communication and the Arts (MICA) on the impact of new media and the Internet on society as well as recommendations to the Government on addressing associated legal and regulatory issues.

The paper is entitled “Engaging New Media: Challenging Old Assumptions”, and can be downloaded here. The full list of feedback received during the 6-week long AIMS Engagement Exercise conducted prior to the final submission can be accessed here.

1. Remove registration requirement for individuals, bodies of persons and political parties.

Currently, the Class Licence Scheme compels political parties and organizations that engage in the discussion of political or religious issues through the Internet to register with the MDA.

The MDA also has the discretion of compelling registration from individuals whom it deems “persistently propagate, promote or circulate political issues relating to Singapore” through the Internet. These registered individuals, also known as “relevant persons” under the Parliamentary Elections Act, would not be permitted to provide material on the Internet that constitutes election advertising during an elections period.

AIMS proposed that the registration requirement for individuals, bodies of persons and political parties be removed as there is already adequate legislation in place, applying equally to both online and offline content, to deal with abhorrent behaviour such as as racial or religious hate speech or criminal defamation. I agree with AIMS’s stand on this.

In my view, Section 78A(1)(b) of the Parliamentary Elections Act which allows the authorities to regulate election advertising on the Internet at their discretion should also be repealed in the interest of freedom of speech and expression, and because the legislation gives the authorities too much leeway to discriminate between different political parties. The AIMS report did not touch on this piece of legislation.

2. Update the Class Licence Scheme to make existing processes such as the details of investigations more transparent.

The Internet Class Licence Scheme covers both Internet Content Providers as well as Internet Service Providers and deals with undesirable content like child pornography or extreme violence in addition to political content.

AIMS is of the view that the Class Licence Scheme should remain as it is, believing that it is the foundation of the “light-touch” policy that the Government has in place. AIMS thinks that the Class Licence Scheme allows that Government to “act nimbly” and deal with potential transgressions without taking the perpetrator to Court. To me, this sounds as nefarious as a watered down version of the Internal Security Act.

AIMS believes that without the “option of a light-touch administrative discretion” such as issuing a warning to the offender, the only choice for the Government would be to charge the person in Court. However, we have witnessed on several occasions bloggers being dragged to Court and charged under the Sedition Act for posting racially offensive comments without ever having the benefit of a “light-touch”. On the other hand, in 2005, the MDA issued take-down notices to for depicting incest and blacklisted for paedophilia, without resorting to Court action.

If the Class Licence Scheme does provide the Government the means of using a “light-touch”, it seems to me the Government is not exploring that option consistently.

In my opinion, the entire class Licence Scheme should be dismantled. The reasons are as articulated in the Bloggers 13 response to the initial AIMS consultation paper in August this year:

The Class Licensing Scheme is distinct from the registration requirement, in that it treats all Internet sites as automatically licensed even if owners are not called on to register. As automatically licensed sites, the Media Development Authority (MDA) treats them as coming within the scope of the Internet Code of Practice, and sees itself as having the power to impose fines on any website for violating its Code of Practice. It is this kind of regulation through administrative discretion that we have argued against, for it is characterized by an opacity of process, and the free hand given by the MDA to itself to write and interpret the Code of Practice. As the AIMS’s paper says, there is already adequate legislation in place, whether to deal with child pornography or racial and religious hate-mongering, so there is no remaining rationale for resorting to an automatic Class Licence Scheme administered by the MDA. The continuance of such a scheme, with its inherent lack of certainty in interpretation and avenues for recourse promotes self-censorship, which is the antithesis of the engagement and active participation that the consultation paper calls for, where “processes are more transparent, eliciting the trust of its citizens.”

3. Extend positive list for Internet election advertising.

Currently, political campaigning (or election advertising) by political parties, candidates, election agents and registered persons on the Internet via podcasts, vodcasts, blogs and social networking sites (e.g. Facebook) during an election period is not allowed as these activities are not prescribed in the “positive list” under the Parliamentary Elections (Election Advertising) Regulations.

AIMS decided that there are good reasons for retaining the “positive list” in order to ensure proper conduct. AIMS wants a more “calibrated approach”, such as extending the positive list to include Web 2.0 technology, which will allow political parties and their agents to use podcasts, vodcasts, blogs, and other New Media tools to promote their agendas and manifestos.

In my view, this positive list should be done away with altogether, as the freewheeling nature of the Internet allows political parties to disseminate views through their supporters and others not directly related to them in whatever form they choose.

All these restrictions relating to political parties serves to stifle them unnecessarily, and deny them the right to express themselves in whatever way they please and carry out their campaigns freely. These restrictions are hardly the hallmark of a democratic society. They are in fact an embarrassment to the political process, in that they imply that political speech is treacherous and is something to be feared rather than allowed to bloom.

4. Liberalise Section 33 of the Films Act in stages, with the view of a complete repeal eventually.

Currently, Section 33 of the Films Act prohibits the making, distributing and exhibiting of party political films.

AIMS recommended liberalizing Section 33 of the Films Act in stages, and as a first step, the “Government should decriminalise the making of party political films and narrow the scope of the law to target only party political films that are made to intentionally mislead viewers.”

While AIMS believes the final objective should be a complete repeal of Section 33 of the Films Act, AIMS again prefers to adopt a “phased approach”, saying that “there is no guarantee that no harm will be done to society and the electoral system should Section 33 be repealed immediately and unconditionally”.

An independent advisory panel will decide whether a political film is made to “intentionally mislead viewers”.

Firstly, AIMS has itself acknowledged in its report that the ban on party political films is too wide-ranging and stifling as the definition of a party political film could cover any film that touches on politics or government policies. Furthermore, technology has out-paced the law and has made it unenforceable, and potential threats to society, like the exploitation of race and religion for political purposes, are already dealt with via other legislation. AIMS has also asserted previously that “Government regulation should be used only as a last resort, because using laws as a first measure to deal with online problems is unwise as the Internet and its users are continuously evolving and can creatively route around laws and regulations, especially if they are not well thought-through.”

Given these facts, is there any need to continue pussyfooting and delay a complete and unconditional repeal of this legislation? My personal opinion is that AIMS is being overly cautious and is still unable to divest itself of the climate of fear that the PAP has instilled in Singaporeans with regards to the Internet and political films in particular.

In my opinion, only a complete repeal of Section 33 of the Films Act is acceptable. Furthermore, it is unreasonable and unconscionable to allow an arbitrary committee formed by the Government to decide whether a film is misleading or not misleading. The onus is on the public and on private researchers to make that conclusion, and EVEN SO, whether a film is deemed misleading or not should not be used as a justification to infringe on the right of a person to produce and distribute it.

Any Government-formed committee with the power to decide whether a political film is misleading and to ban it on that account will bring us right back to square one.

AIMS also said it is in favour of retaining Section 35 of the Films Act which gives the authorities discretion to prohibit the possession or distribution of any film that they deem contrary to “public interest”.

However, AIMS recommends that the Government spell out clearly the basis under which films can be banned under Section 35, that the independent advisory panel for party political films should advise the authorities before a film is banned, and the Minister should also be obliged to give reasons for the ban.

The terms “more pussyfooting” and “back to square one” leap into my mind again. Section 35 of the Films Act gives way too much administrative discretion to the authorities and lends itself readily to abuse.

Martyn See’s video documentary “Zahari’s 17 years” was not banned under Section 33, but under Section 35 of the Films Act. This example should alone show that even in the absence of Section 33, the authorities can easily fall back on Section 35 to continue their agenda of repression.

For his film “Singapore Rebel”, Martyn See was placed under police investigations, had his tapes and camera confiscated, and even his friends and acquaintances were called up for interviews. (See here.) This was all because he produced a film which the authorities decided were in contrary to “public interest”.

The AIMS recommendations, due to their lack of willingness to move ahead decisively on what is right and their insistence of retaining unjust legislation, would not prevent another episode of Martyn See from occurring.

As such, I register my immense dissatisfaction with the AIMS recommendations.