Why India Shouldn’t Take Cues from Singapore’s New Licensing Framework for Online Publications

SingaporeIn Singapore, online news sites are being brought under a new licensing regime. From June  1st 2013, news sites that have more than 50,000 unique visits every month and report on Current affairs and news from Singapore at least once a week, will have to put up a $50,000 performance bond and get a license from the media development authority there.

“As the sites are already subject to these requirements, no change in content standards is expected to result,” the authority said.

The Good

The good news is that the government is acknowledging online platforms at par with traditional media. Which means government accreditation, access to restricted conferences etc. In countries like India, it would mean bloggers would enjoy the same privileges given to the journalists. In cases of “prohibited content,” online publications will be governed by the existing Internet code of practice. So there won’t be any need to change the kind of stuff that gets published.

The Ugly

Firstly, the $50,000 fee is a bit steep for online publications. Secondly, the new framework expects news sites to remove content that breach content standards within 24 hours the authority directs them to do so. With the $50,000 at stake, this has serious potential for censorship. Reportedly, there are clauses to penalise (including imprisonment) media outlets that don’t stick to the regime.

Why India shouldn’t take cues from Singapore

In India, online publication is in very early stages. Such a framework will give the government stifling control over websites and news sources.

Here’s why: There is always a skirmish between the media and the government. To hold the government accountable and for reasons better known to them, media houses often carry stories that are anti government. What follows is a stand off.

The government usually tries to push the media house by pulling advertisements, shutting them out or threatening to file lawsuits. However, this can’t go on for long. Because the politician knows that the media can damage his reputation because it reaches a large section of the society. This keeps the power equation balanced. A piece of advice which goes around in a typical newsroom is that you should know whose and how much to squeeze.

In the case of online media in India, the politicians couldn’t care less. In its current state, everyone knows that it can do very little to influence public perception unless stories are picked up by the mainstream, over which they exercise some control. This puts the government at an unfair advantage. However, it is only a matter of time that online media gains enough currency to bargain with the government.

Equal privileges for bloggers and traditional media could swing both ways. While it gives you access and essential security clearances, governments often mollycoddle journalists by giving them sops such as subsidized bus, train and air travel and cheap land. If such privileges are extended to the online world, it will lead to corruption and bias of the very nature the mainstream media is accused of.

Moreover, India is not Lee Kuan Yew’s Singapore.

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