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

TOC has until 3pm on September 16, 2021 to disable its website, social media channels and accounts. — Samuel Woo/TODAY pic
TOC has until 3pm on September 16, 2021 to disable its website, social media channels and accounts. — Samuel Woo/TODAY pic

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SINGAPORE, Sept 14 — The Infocomm Media Development Authority (IMDA) has suspended the class licence of socio-political website The Online Citizen (TOC) for its failure to declare its funding sources.

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

In a statement today, 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 September 28 to provide the disclosures so that it may be compliant with the law, said IMDA.

IMDA 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, said the authority.

“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,” said IMDA.

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.

TOC allowed subscribers to commission articles

IMDA also flagged up a possible loophole that TOC had been exploiting through its paid subscription model. 

Under IMDA’s rules, online content providers can accept only local funds 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.

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.

It had also 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.

“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,” said IMDA.

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

IMDA’s announcement 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. — TODAY

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