TOC’s registration throws another spanner in the works for Singapore’s media landscape

In its media release, TOC requested that Prime Minister’s Office lift the gazetting requirements on TOC as a “political association”.

Kirsten Han| November 10, 12:22 PM

* The Opinion Collaborative Ltd (TOC Ltd) has submitted its registration forms to the Media Development Authority (MDA) on 10 November, as requested by MDA under the Broadcasting (Class Licence) Notification.

When the Media Development Authority (MDA) first brought in their online licensing regime, The Online Citizen (TOC) asked why they had not been included in the list of ten to be registered. They were told then that they did not fulfill the requirements (even though they said they did).

But now the MDA has sent another piece of regulation their way. They want The Opinion Collaborative Ltd. – a social enterprise set up to manage TOC website as well as other activities – to register under the Broadcasting (Class Licence) Notification.

It’s a requirement that The Opinion Collaborative Ltd. will comply with. They have, after all, come too far to stop now.

I was a contributor and member of TOC when the website was gazetted by the Prime Minister’s Office (PMO) in 2011. It came as a complete surprise; we had never seen ourselves as the “political association” that the PMO claimed we were. (That said, we were more than happy to adopt the highly quotable line in the PMO’s letter that stated TOC’s power to influence politics in Singapore – what an endorsement!)

We were unsure of what to do at the time. Should we allow ourselves to be gazetted, or should we close down? I remember discussions about “going hydra”, which sounded much cooler than what we actually meant – to shut down TOC nd have all contributors start personal blogs instead.

But we ultimately decided to stay, because of the signal that it would send to civil society and the rest of the Singaporean public. We were determined to show that TOC would not bend and break at the first sign of the government’s creeping control.

Postgraduate study and work commitments led to my leaving. But the team has continued to push on, through financial and resource constraints. There were many discussions about sustainability and growth, about whether some sort of corporate entity should be set up to manage the site. After years of back-and-forth, The Opinion Collaborative Ltd. was registered to create a corporate entity behind the website, as well as to allow the team to explore other opportunities and endeavours.

For these guys, MDA’s requirements are more of a hassle than anything else. TOC has, after all, already been barred from taking foreign funding over three years now. The registration is therefore pretty much just a “double confirm plus chop” of this rule. One hopes that the registration also means that government agencies will now be more forthcoming and willing to respond to TOC when they send in queries for their articles.

What it does, though, is create administrative headache for the team. The Opinion Collaborative Ltd. will now have to absolutely ensure that no foreign money comes anywhere near the operation of TOC, a step up from the “due diligence” that they had to show under the Political Donations Act. This could potentially mean that TOC cannot receive any anonymous donations at all – how else can the company prove that every single cent comes from a local source?

But what will this mean if The Opinion Collaborative Ltd. receives donations that might be for their other activities? If the registration is only for the website, does this mean that they’ll be allowed to take foreign funding for non-website-related activities? Or will all these other endeavours be restricted too?

These are issues that The Opinion Collaborative Ltd. will now have to figure out. I’m confident that they will. But how many start-ups will be able to deal with this death by paperwork that the MDA has decided to dole out?

Singapore has the potential to have a flourishing media landscape. Our Internet and smartphone penetration levels are impressively high, opening up many possibilities for online and mobile media consumption. There is also no shortage of talent who might be interested in contributing in a variety of ways to different media projects. But regulation like the MDA’s can easily throw a spanner in the works and put people off trying to build new, innovative platforms.

With increasing numbers of people moving away from traditional mainstream media, who will this serve? It would be in no one’s interest for legit media start-ups to get scared off by the admin tsunami that will crash over their heads in the event of MDA registration, while anonymous websites with dodgy editors run amok.

Top photo from The Online Citizen.

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