Singapore forces popular site to register as political group

New York, January 26, 2011–In a concerning move against political commentary in advance of upcoming general elections, the government of Singapore has ordered a journalistic website to register as a political association, the Committee to Protect Journalists said today. The Online Citizen says it has complied with the order, and has announced a January 29 “celebration” of its new status and invited the prime minister to attend. 

On January 10, the Registry of Political Donations, a branch of Prime Minister Lee Hsien Loong’s office, wrote to The Online Citizen ordering it to register as a political association, according to local and international news reports. The notice gave the website 14 days to reveal the identity of its staff, according to the Hong Kong-based Asia Times. The registry denied the Citizen’s written appeal last week, according to the Singaporean Today newspaper’s website. The Citizen has covered political issues since 2006.

“Discussing politics does not make a publication a political organization,” said Bob Dietz, CPJ Asia program coordinator. “Forcing The Online Citizen to register as a political association distorts its role and threatens its ability to cover politics. Prime Minister Lee Hsien Loong is clearly trying to tighten control of media outlets before calling elections.”

Registered groups are forbidden from receiving funding from overseas, and anonymous donations are capped at 5,000 Singapore dollars (US$3,900), news reports said. CPJ research shows that Lee Hsien Loong’s People’s Action Party instigated registrations 10 years ago, prior to the November 2001 elections, to prevent online speech from becoming an independent alternative to the regular media, which is largely government-owned and heavily controlled. Lee has not announced the timing of the next elections, which are due to take place before February 2012, according to local news reports.

The government says it requires political registration, known as gazetting in Singapore, to limit foreign involvement in politics, and that the Citizen is a participant, not an observer. Singapore officials said in response to The Economist magazine’s article on The Online Citizen’s registration that the website was gazetted because it “organized polls on political issues and a forum for politicians, and mounted online and offline campaigns to change legislation and government policies.”