US govt 'deeply concerned' about S'pore licensing rule

US State Department expresses concerns about Singapore's licensing rule and urges the Asian nation to "protect" freedom of expression according to its global "obligations".
Written by Eileen Yu, Senior Contributing Editor
U.S. government describes Singapore's online licensing rule as "restrictive".

The U.S. government has expressed concerns over the introduction of an Internet licensing regime in Singapore and urged the Asian economy to safeguard Internet freedom according to global standards.  

During a daily media briefing in Washington on Monday, US State Department spokesperson Jen Psaki said: "We are deeply concerned by the new restrictive Singaporean policy requiring the licensing of news websites. We raise Internet freedom regularly in bilateral and multilateral dialogues with foreign governments, including Singapore.

"We urge Singapore to ensure freedom of expression is protected in accordance with its international obligations and commitments. We closely monitor and often speak out, as you all know, on both Internet freedom and media freedom throughout the world. This case is no different and we are concerned, of course, to see Singapore applying press restrictions to the online world," Psaki noted. 

During a parliament session Monday, Singapore's Communications and Information Minister Yaacob Ibrahim dismissed fears the new licensing framwork would stifle online freedom in the country. He said the move was necessary to place a "stronger onus" on news websites to report responsibly and be "aware of their legal obligations". 

Describing the online licensing rule as "not a major change", Yaacob said: "It is because of the responsibility news providers have to our society that we have adopted an individual licensing framework for traditional news platforms. And this is also the reason for extending a similar framework to online news sites for greater consistency." 

Effective last month, news websites that meet two criteria--primarily around reach and frequency--stipulated by Singapore's content regulator Media Development Authority (MDA) will need to apply for a license. The move sparked much public outcry and online petitions, including a self-imposed 24-hour blackout by several local bloggers in protest of what they described as an attempt to stifle Internet freedom. 

Five U.S.-based Internet giants also issued a letter to the government detailing their concerns over the latest measure. Comprising Facebook, Google, Salesforce.com. eBay, and Yahoo, the group said the licensing rule could "unintentionally hamper Singapore's ability to continue to drive innovation, develop key industries in the technology space, and attract investment in this key sector". 

Yaacob's ministry had responded by again noting that little has changed and the new licensing framework was necessary to "ensure greater parity" for news agencies across traditional and online media platforms.


Ironically, in her reply about the new ruling, Psaki was asked if the U.S. government's push for Internet freedom in countries was to "make it easier" for it to "listen in and bug people". She appeared to hesitate before replying: "I just--I want to make sure...that the AP and Reuters stories are available to all the people of Singapore."

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