Subscriptions shouldn't be used as a loophole for foreign funding, TOC transparency required: IMDA

The subscription model is allowed, but there must be transparency over funding, says IMDA.

Sulaiman Daud | September 09, 2021, 05:05 PM

The Online Citizen's (TOC) chief editor Terry Xu has taken his tussle with the Infocomm Media Development Authority (IMDA) over his subscription model public.

In a couple of Facebook posts, Xu voiced his objections to some of  IMDA's questions asked about TOC's subscription model.

However, IMDA has confirmed that while a subscription model is allowed for websites, these subscriptions should not be used as a "loophole" for foreigners to contribute funds.

TOC's licence

In the early hours of Sep. 7, Xu shared a Facebook post saying that unless he made the annual declaration as required under the Broadcasting (Class Licence) Notification, TOC's licence ran the risk of being suspended.

Xu said the following:

  • IMDA asked him to "justify" the subscription fees it charges its subscribers.
  • After explaining how the subscription model worked, IMDA asked TOC to provide evidence.
  • IMDA flagged the failure to identify a donor and discrepancies in its foreign advertising revenue, which Xu claims is a "simple accounting mistake."
  • However, TOC refuses to fill up the declaration form because of IMDA's "unjustified attempt" to scrutinise its business.

Xu also shared what appeared to be screenshots of a letter from IMDA, which asked him to clarify what benefits subscribers to TOC received over non-paying readers.

Image from Terry Xu's Facebook page.

He also shared another, similar screenshot seeking clarification on the differences between the tiers of support for TOC's fundraising campaign.

Image from Terry Xu's Facebook page.

In yet another Facebook post on Sep. 7, Xu claimed, "IMDA is not asking TOC to be transparent. IMDA is asking, "Why are you charging your subscribers?"."

IMDA: Subscription should not be used as a loophole for foreign funding

Mothership reached out to IMDA for comment. An IMDA spokesperson gave this response:

"Subscription as a model is allowed. However, subscriptions should not be used as a loophole for foreign funding. That is why IMDA requires full transparency as to how TOC derives its subscription revenue."

In a news release on Sep. 7, IMDA said:

"TOC has repeatedly failed to declare all its funding sources for its 2020 annual declaration despite multiple reminders and extensions granted to TOC. TOC has informed IMDA that it does not intend to comply with its obligations under the law. IMDA has therefore asked TOC to explain its non-compliance."

IMDA said there is no reason for TOC not to comply, as other registered websites do so to be transparent about their sources of funding.

If TOC does not comply, IMDA may take further action, different to Xu's claim that IMDA definitely intends to suspend TOC's licence.

Foreign influence in local politics should be prevented

According to IMDA, websites that promote or discuss political issues relating to Singapore must be transparent about their funding, to prevent them from being controlled or influenced by foreigners. This is to prevent foreign influence in local politics.

Previously, Xu was sued for defamation by Prime Minister Lee Hsien Loong after a Malaysian writer, Rubaashini Shunmuganathan, wrote an article about PM Lee and his wife, Ho Ching.

PM Lee was awarded S$210,000 in damages after Justice Audrey Lim found the article to be defamatory, and said that the libel against PM Lee was "grave and serious".

Minister for Home Affairs and Law K Shanmugam has said that there are "legitimate questions to be asked" about the motivations of foreign writers working for TOC.

Speaking at an RSIS Conference on Foreign Interference Tactics and Counter Measures in Sep. 2019, Shanmugam said:

"TOC uses foreigners, employs them, including Malaysians, to write almost exclusively negative articles on Singaporean social and political matters, including inflammatory articles that seek to fracture social cohesion.

They support the call for Singaporean civil servants to follow the example of Hong Kong civil servants in protesting, making allegations about the Prime Minister which has led to a civil suit by the Prime Minister, because the PM says they are false attacks against his character and fitness to hold office."

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Top image from Terry Xu and IMDA Facebook pages.