The Online Citizen ordered to suspend publishing by Thursday

The Online Citizen’s Facebook page. Photo: Coconuts
The Online Citizen’s Facebook page. Photo: Coconuts

A source of critical political news and commentary has been forced to close shop by Thursday amid a dispute with media regulators over its funding.  

The Online Citizen, or TOC, lost a long-running back and forth with Singapore’s media authority over its financing – particularly its anonymous backers – today and will have to suspend operations. The Infocomm Media Development Authority, or IMDA, which holds power over the press, justified its order as a simple act of regulatory enforcement.

“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,” the authority said in a statement.

The 15-year-old site and its related social media have until 3pm on Thursday to stop publishing content and could lose its license to operate if it does not comply with the authority’s requests. 

The site contends that the media authority’s actions amount to intimidation and harassment of the city’s longest-running alternative website. It says that by nitpicking on its subscription model,  the authority aims to “strike fear” in potential donors hoping to support independent journalism in Singapore.  

Chief Editor Terry Xu noted that its subscription model, which allows anonymous supporters to commission stories on specific topics, has been around since 2015 but only became an issue last year. He said that he’s attempted to negotiate a solution with the authority; it responded publicly by saying there was nothing to negotiate about the rules.

“We have also explained to IMDA how the subscription model works, however IMDA went further to ask TOC to justify its subscription fees. Even after showing proof of how the model works, IMDA continued to press on regarding this matter,” Xu wrote online, describing IMDA’s actions as an unjustified “form of harassment.” 

Xu did not explain why the IMDA objects to the anonymous subscription model, though the authorities routinely frame their media controls as a means of barring unspecified foreign influences.

On its donation page, TOC advertises that it will author and publish opinion pieces (S$120), investigative reports (S$500), and feature stories (S$1,000). No editorial guidelines or requirements are specified.

The suspension comes a week after both parties went public about the matter, and a day after a law against foreign interference in domestic politics, especially on the internet, was proposed in parliament.

Earlier this year, TOC was formally warned after it failed to identify one of two donors and clarify alleged discrepancies in its 2019 revenues from foreign advertisers.

“We have already clarified the identity of one of the donors and noted to IMDA that we are fine with donating the other sum if IMDA chooses to order us to do so and also clarified that it was just a mistake in the foreign advertiser figures that were submitted,” Xu said in response.

The authority gave TOC two weeks to comply with its demands or risk losing its license entirely.

Other stories:

The Online Citizen denies ‘twisting’ police harassment story, wants correction order revoked
The Online Citizen editor says police raided his home again, seized devices

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