Singaporean authorities shut down The Real Singapore news website

Bangkok, May 5, 2015–Singaporean authorities on Sunday ordered an independent news website to be shut down, citing the website’s content as being objectionable to state interests, according to news reports. The Real Singapore is the first news website to be shut down under Singapore’s licensing regulations, introduced in 2013, according to CPJ research.

The Media Development Authority, a media regulatory board formed under Singapore’s Ministry of Communications and Information, revoked the operating license of The Real Singapore for publishing content it said undermined “the public interest, public order, and national harmony,” according to news reports. The agency ordered the website’s editors to shut down its online and social media platforms by 8 p.m. on Sunday or face fines or imprisonment, the reports said. The site’s editors complied with the order.

In a statement, the MDA said the site had “deliberately fabricated articles” and “sought to incite anti-foreigner sentiments in Singapore,” reports said. The agency also said the site violated local regulations, including the Newspaper and Printing Presses Act and Broadcasting Act, which bar foreign ownership of registered news websites. The statement did not specify any articles.

It was not immediately clear if the site’s editors intended to challenge the shutdown order with the Communications and Information Ministry, the only means of appeal allowed under Singaporean law.

Editors of The Real Singapore were told to provide information about the website’s operations and finances to authorities by May 11, reports said. They face fines of up to Singaporean $200,000 (about US$150,000) and a maximum three years in prison for failure to comply with that request, reports said.

The shutdown order followed charges filed in April against two of the website’s editors, Yang Kaiheng, a Singaporean, and Ai Takagi, an Australian, according to news reports. The charges include sedition and other criminal charges in connection with the editors’ alleged failure to produce documents as requested by police, reports said.

The charges were in connection with articles that authorities said stoked hostility between ethnic groups, according to news reports. One article alleged a Philippine family complained that drums were played too loudly during a Hindu ritual procession on February 3, which provoked an incident between revelers and police that, according to the article, resulted in three arrests.

Yang was allowed to post bail on Monday to travel to Australia to visit an ailing family member on condition that he return by May 17, reports said. The journalists were charged on April 14 and released on bail of Singaporean $20,000 (about US$15,000) each. The next court date is scheduled for May 18, reports said.

“Singapore’s licensing system for online news services was designed from the start for this type of censorship and harassment,” said Shawn Crispin, CPJ’s senior Southeast Asia representative. “We call on the Media Development Authority to repeal its suspension order of The Real Singapore, drop all of the charges against its editors, and allow the website to continue its journalistic work free of threats or reprisal.”

In June 2013, Singapore introduced a regulation for all websites that report on local news and receive more than 50,000 unique visitors with IP addresses in Singapore for two consecutive months, according to news reports. Licensed websites are required to pay a Singaporean $50,000 (about US$37,500) bond and remove any “prohibited content,” including news deemed detrimental to public interests, within 24 hours of being contacted by the MDA.

Singaporean bloggers have said that the requirements aim to bring online media under the same restrictions that stifle the country’s mainstream print and broadcast media. Independent bloggers campaigning for online freedoms and against the licensing system have expressed concern that the closure of The Real Singapore will engender more self-censorship among citizen journalists, particularly when linking to articles about class or race, news reports said.