Media panel decides to let sleeping gods lie

Cherian George

The Media Convergence Review Panel has missed an opportunity to nudge the Government’s regulatory regime into the 21st century. The Panel took on the challenge of recommending how to harmonise rules across platforms, in an age when text, sound and images can flow from one format to another with ease.

In today’s Singapore, internet freedom coexists with the 19th century colonial phenomenon  in which traditional media publishers are beholden to political leaders for publishing permits. This has created an “unlevel playing field”, the Panel notes:

“Local media players are increasingly vulnerable to online competition from overseas media service providers who are not subject to local regulatory regimes.”

The Panel could have argued for licensing and other rules to be significantly modernised in order to help local print and broadcast players compete with freer online media. Instead, the thrust of its report goes in the opposite direction, suggesting that large online players be subject to similar regulations as traditional media.

The final two paragraphs of its report do point out that “it will grow increasingly untenable for MDA to continue to apply the same regulatory approach as it did in the past” and that regulation alone is not a “magic bullet”. But it has no specific proposals to offer. Rather, its chapter on licensing is about leveling down media freedom instead of leveling it up or even finding a happy compromise.

It states that it was guided by the principle that “licensing continues to be necessary”, for three reasons: to protect the public interest through obligations imposed on licensees; to set local contents; and as a means of allocating scarce radio frequencies. The report is sprinkled with examples from more democratic settings such as Australia and the European Union.

Not even the staunchest free speech defenders deny that some regulation of media is necessary. In fact, certain rights are only achievable through state intervention – such as the communication rights of minorities and children, who are often under-served by the free market. International law also requires states to protect minorities against incitement to violence, hatred and discrimination.

However, what the Panel’s report glosses over is that there are international best practices for media regulation – and that Singapore is far away from them. For one, regulators should be as independent as possible from the government of the day, to ensure that they work in the public interest and don’t become instruments of the ruling party. Second, any licensing system must be transparent and subject to independent review – and not give out or withdraw permits based on political loyalty.

In these regards, the European and Australian regulators that the Panel cites approvingly are not like Singapore’s MDA. And licensing regimes in freer societies are not like Singapore’s, where it entirely up to Cabinet to decide whether an entity should hold a licence.

This would not be the first time such harmonisation of regulation has gone in the wrong direction. After the Newspaper and Printing Presses Act of 1974 succeeded in taming local newspapers, offshore magazines like Far Eastern Economic Review and Asiaweek saw the niche to supply Singaporeans with more critical journalism than their local media could offer. The government responded by amending the NPPA in the 1980s to restrict the circulation of offshore publications deemed to be meddling in Singapore politics.

When global news channels emerged, equivalent instruments were introduced to ensure that the likes of CNN and CNBC would not be able to show up MediaCorp's news programmes by exploiting the regulatory loophole with impunity. Since pay TV is controlled by GLCs, Al Jazeera English has been kept off Singapore's TV screens, depriving television audiences here of one of the world's most respected news providers.

Now, with the apparent approval of major industry players, Singapore seems to be attempting similar harmonisation for the internet. Yahoo! News, now among the top online news providers in Singapore, is one possible target.

Surprisingly, Google is among the media giants represented on the panel. Google is a member of the Global Network Initiative, which has pledged itself to resist censorship. It is unclear how Google reconciles its own commitments to internet freedom with the Panel’s recommendations.

The big loser, though, is not Google or any of the global media entities that regulatory harmonisation is supposed to address. It is really Singapore, including its government. We needed a wake-up call. This high-level panel was in a position to give it. It has instead allowed policymakers to believe that it can be business as usual.

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