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The Online Citizen must disable website, accounts by Sept 16, after licence suspended for failure to declare funding sources

The Online Citizen must disable website, accounts by Sept 16, after licence suspended for failure to declare funding sources

Source: TODAY
Article Date: 15 Sep 2021
Author: Ng Jun Sen

Should The Online Citizen fail to comply with its suspension, the IMDA may take steps to restrict access to the website and may hold its officers liable for criminal offences under the Broadcasting Act.

  • The Infocomm Media Development Authority has suspended The Online Citizen’s licence
  • This means it must disable its website, social media accounts by 3pm on Sept 16, 2021
  • The website was not compliant after it failed to declare funding sources despite repeated reminders, extensions
  • Should it fail to comply, the authority may take steps to restrict access to the site and may hold its officers liable for criminal offences
  • The website's subscription model allowed people to request specific articles to be written if they provided “subscription funding”

The Infocomm Media Development Authority (IMDA) has suspended the class licence of sociopolitical website The Online Citizen (TOC) for its failure to declare its funding sources.

It is thus prohibited from posting articles on its website as well as social media channels and accounts, which it must disable by 3pm on Thursday.

In a statement on Tuesday (Sept 14), IMDA, which regulates internet content providers, said that TOC had “repeatedly failed” to declare all its sources of funding in its 2020 yearly declaration despite many reminders and extensions.

Should TOC fail to comply with the suspension, IMDA may take steps to restrict access to TOC and may hold its officers liable for criminal offences under the Broadcasting Act. 

TOC has until Sept 28 to provide the disclosures so that it may be compliant with the law, IMDA said.

The authority may cancel TOC’s licence “if it does not provide further information to bring it into full compliance” with the Broadcasting Act. 

The sociopolitical website had earlier told IMDA that it did not intend to comply with its obligations under the law.

IMDA said: “There is no reason for TOC not to comply, as other registered internet content providers provide this information in order to be transparent about their sources of funding.” 

The class licence requires content providers that engage in the online promotion or discussion of Singapore’s politics to be transparent about their sources of funding. This is to prevent them from being controlled by foreign actors or coming under the influence of foreign entities and funding.

TOC had become a registered class licensee in 2018 but, since 2019, IMDA said that TOC had not fully complied with this obligation. 

In 2019, it failed to verify a donor and to clarify “discrepancies” in its foreign advertising revenue and had been issued a warning on May 4 this year.

IMDA’s statement follows the introduction of a proposed law on Monday — the Foreign Interference (Countermeasures) Act — to combat foreign interference in Singapore politics and safeguard the country’s political sovereignty and democratic processes.

ALLOWED SUBSCRIBERS TO COMMISSION ARTICLES

Under the authority's rules, online content providers can accept funding only in Singapore and will have to ensure that these contributions are fully transparent by declaring them. They are, however, allowed to accept foreign funding that has a clear commercial purpose such as subscription revenue and advertising revenue. 

Even so, these exceptions cannot be used as a loophole to channel illegitimate foreign funds, which must also be declared and have identifiable sources.

IMDA said that it had repeatedly asked TOC to clarify various elements of its subscription framework. These include an element that allowed people to request that specific articles be written if they provided “subscription funding”, without having to disclose their identity.

IMDA said that this was cause for concern because it could be an avenue for foreign influence, and highlighted this as a possible loophole that TOC had been exploiting through its paid subscription model. 

It added that TOC insisted that such subscriptions be excluded from declarations and had refused to give more information to clarify its overall subscription framework.

TOC had told the authorities on Monday that it would provide its 2020 yearly declaration on the condition that IMDA stop seeking clarifications about its subscription framework and funding sources.

To that, IMDA said: “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.

“It is therefore not a matter for negotiation with IMDA.” 

The announcement by the authority came a week after it said last Tuesday that it could take enforcement action against TOC if the website could not provide “good reasons” for repeatedly failing to declare all its funding sources.

Responding to news of the suspension, Terry Xu, the chief editor of TOC, told TODAY: “While the suspension of the website is expected, I did not expect IMDA to suspend TOC's other social media service as they are not part of the declaration required by the Minister (for Communications and Information).”

He was referring to the declaration form that IMDA had required TOC to complete, titled Registration Form C For Class Licensable Broadcasting Services. It “made no mention of social media in it,” Mr Xu said.

Asked what TOC intends to do before Sept 28, he said: “We are seeking legal advice at the moment, but it is likely that we will challenge (the) decision by the ministry via legal means.”

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