The Online Citizen (TOC), a platform that writes about politics in Singapore, has had its website suspended, along with its social media channels and accounts.
The Infocomm Media Development Authority (IMDA) announced on Sep. 14 that TOC has not complied with its legal obligation to be transparent about its sources of funding as a registered Internet Content Provider.
A week before this announcement, the website's chief editor, Terry Xu, posted on Facebook that IMDA would be suspending TOC's license.
But IMDA said on Sep. 7 that it had merely "asked TOC to explain its non-compliance".
In the latest development, IMDA said TOC has not provided any good reason for its non-compliance, and will thus be suspended as of Sep. 14.
What was TOC required to do?
Registered websites, such as TOC, with a Class License from IMDA, must undertake not to receive funding from foreign sources for the provision, management and/ or operation of the website, except for bona fide commercial purposes.
Such websites must make an annual declaration under the Broadcasting (Class Licence) Notification.
IMDA explained in its statement that the requirement for transparency is to "prevent such sites from being controlled by foreign actors, or coming under the influence of foreign entities or funding, and to ensure that there is no foreign influence in domestic politics".
Why did TOC fail to comply?
TOC had declared its funding sources in 2018, when it first registered with IMDA.
However, IMDA said that TOC has "not fully complied" with its transparency obligations since 2019.
TOC had failed to verify a donor and to clarify discrepancies in its foreign advertising revenue in its 2019 declaration, resulting in IMDA issuing it a warning on May 4, 2021.
Then, in 2020, TOC "repeatedly failed to declare all its funding sources despite multiple reminders and extensions granted", said IMDA in its statement.
A Facebook post on Sep. 7 by Xu, which was later shared on TOC's Facebook page, explained that IMDA's issues with TOC's 2019 declarations had been addressed, and said that the issue of subscription revenue was "the sole reason" for TOC's current non-compliance.
What is the issue with TOC's subscription revenue?
One of TOC's revenue sources is subscription fees from its site's readers, which IMDA said was allowed as a revenue model under its license.
In Xu's Sep. 7 Facebook post, he wrote that TOC has explained "how the subscription model works" to IMDA.
However, IMDA said it repeatedly asked TOC to clarify various elements of its subscription framework, due to concerns over potential foreign influence.
One element of TOC's subscription framework allowed "subscribers" to get specific articles written, in return for "subscription funding" received, IMDA said.
IMDA said that "TOC has insisted for such 'subscriptions' to be excluded from full declaration of funding sources, while refusing to provide further information to clarify its overall subscription framework".
"This is not consistent with full disclosure and transparency," it added.
IMDA: TOC offered the "necessary declaration" on condition of no further clarifications
According to IMDA, TOC tried to negotiate with IMDA on the declaration.
IMDA added that a response from TOC on Sep. 13 "purportedly offered to provide the 'necessary declaration', on the condition that IMDA assures TOC that it will not seek further clarifications regarding TOC's subscription framework and its funding sources".
However, IMDA said this was "not a matter for negotiation" as the requirement for TOC to provide information concerning the provision of its broadcasting service to IMDA is a requirement by law to ensure full transparency.
What is getting suspended?
The suspension applies to TOC's website (www.theonlinecitizen.com), as well as its social media accounts on platforms such as Facebook and Twitter.
The suspension is effective from Sep. 14, 2021.
The suspension means that TOC is required to stop posting any more articles on its websites and its social media channels and accounts. TOC will also be required to disable them by 3pm on Sep. 16.
TOC is also not allowed to operate any new licensable broadcasting services online, IMDA said.
And if TOC fails to comply, IMDA said it "may take steps to restrict access to these services".
It is also a criminal offence for TOC to continue operating these services and its officers may also be held liable, said IMDA.
Can TOC reverse the suspension?
An IMDA spokesperson said that TOC has a deadline to submit the required information in two weeks.
Should TOC not come into full compliance within these two weeks, IMDA may cancel its license entirely.
Top image via TOC and Terry Xu on Facebook
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