Singapore-based news portal The Online Citizen (TOC) has temporarily closed its website and social media accounts after its license was suspended by the Infocomm Media Development Authority (IMDA) for alleged failure to reveal its foreign funders.
IMDA’s order was denounced by media freedom advocates as another example of Singapore’s restrictive policy governing independent media.
TOC has faced threats from the government in the past but this is the first time that the news portal was forced to cease operating.
IMDA explained why it was important to ensure that political websites do not receive foreign funding:
This is to prevent such sites from being controlled by, or coming under the influence of foreign entities or funding, and ensure that there is no foreign influence in domestic politics.
We need to be cautious as the prevalence of the Internet and social media platforms makes it easier to influence large numbers of people.
IMDA is suspicious of TOC’s subscription model since it can be a method for foreign interests to influence the operations of the company:
One element of TOC’s subscription framework allowed “subscribers” to get specific articles written, in return for “subscription funding” received. This is a cause for concern as it could be an avenue for foreign influence.
On its now-deleted donation page, TOC offers subscribers the opportunity to pay for opinion pieces, investigative reports, and feature stories.
TOC editor Terry Xu clarified that the subscription feature of the website does not affect their editorial work. He insisted that this revenue generation model cannot be considered advertising:
In this case, you have patrons, subscribers, who are more supportive, going for that tier, and they could play a part in terms of the kind of stories that TOC would carry.
Lim Tean, a member of TOC’s legal team criticized IMDA for nitpicking on the subscription model of the news company:
You have tried to interfere with TOC's business model by alleging that their subscription model cannot be justified and therefore all their subscribers must be treated as donors.
Your stance on this issue is highly questionable and suspect. Even after our client provided exhaustive evidence to you of how their subscribers benefit from the subscription model, you continued to insist that there is no evidence to prove the authenticity of the subscription model.
Terry Xu added that IMDA’s actions reflected the government’s hardline approach in dealing with independent media outlets like TOC:
IMDA's actions are nothing more than means of harassment and intimidation of the free press in Singapore. With Singapore's firm grasp on digital financial transactions, it is impossible for the government not to be aware of where the funds are coming from.
The licensing regime is simply meant to strike fear in the minds of the would-be donors and subscribers to prevent them from supporting independent journalism in Singapore.
After the closure of the TOC website and its social media accounts, many Singaporeans expressed concern about the chilling effect of this incident. Journalist Kirsten Han acknowledged the role of TOC in publishing reports not covered by the mainly pro-government mainstream media websites:
TOC has provided space for issues that wouldn't have had space elsewhere. Its presence, its work, *has* shifted the needle. It's pushed the mainstream media to cover (or do a better job covering) issues like migrant workers’ rights, which is now quite commonly reported on.
— Kirsten Han 韩俐颖 (@kixes) September 16, 2021
Daniel Bastard of Reporters Without Borders noted that TOC is being singled out because of its critical reporting:
Let's not be fooled: the pro-government newspapers and news sites that constitute most of the Singaporean media are entirely exempt from the IMDA’s requests, unlike TOC, which is subjected to endless harassment. The site is clearly being made to pay for its editorial independence.
Terry Xu assured TOC’s followers that the website’s closure was just a temporary setback:
Contrary to expectation, there will be no sad statements of how TOC is being forced to close after nearly 15 years of operations as I assure you that this is just a temporary suspension of its operations and a time of reflection for TOC to look at how it can better improve itself in order to serve Singaporeans, its supporters and the greater public.
Through its legal representative, TOC has already asked the court to conduct a judicial review of the suspension order issued by IMDA.