Singapore media regulator cancels local news site license after failure to disclose foreign funding
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Singapore media regulator cancels local news site license after failure to disclose foreign funding

Singapore’s media regulator, the Infocomm Media Development Authority (IMDA), canceled Friday the license of a local news site for failure to disclose all its sources of funding in its 2020 annual declaration. The Online Citizen (TOC) was founded 15 years ago and often publishes stories that were critical of the government, one of which recently led to a journalist being sued for defamation by the Singapore Prime Minister earlier this year.

The action was taken under the Broadcasting Act and the Broadcasting (Class Licence) Notification which requires registered Internet Content Providers (ICPs) that engage in political discussions online to be transparent about their funding sources.

TOC’s license has a subscription-based model, which allows subscribers to access specific articles in return for the funding received through their subscription. The IMDA is concerned that this model could be a channel for foreign influence:

This is to prevent such ICPs 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.

TOC was issued a warning on 4 May 2021, after which its license was suspended on the 14th of September 2021 and given a final deadline of 28 September 2021 to clarify various elements of its subscription framework. In its press release, the IMDA states that TOA “repeatedly refused to comply with its license conditions,” including failure to submit the required information.

TOC’s Chief Editor Terry Xu has stated that its subscription model does not impact its editorial independence since his team only wrote articles based on facts. Instead, the model allowed supportive patrons and subscribers to be part of the content creation process by funding TOC. Notably, TOC’s now-deleted donations page only advertised that the news site would author and publish opinion pieces, investigative reports, and feature stories without any editorial requirements.

TOC’s legal representative has called the decision “unlawful, unreasonable and irrational” and indicated that they would seek judicial review of IMDA’s actions.