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IMDA asks The Online Citizen to explain 'non-compliance' after it 'repeatedly failed' to declare all funding sources

IMDA asks The Online Citizen to explain 'non-compliance' after it 'repeatedly failed' to declare all funding sources

The Online Citizen logo. (Photo: Facebook/The Online Citizen)

SINGAPORE: The Infocomm Media Development Authority (IMDA) has asked local website The Online Citizen (TOC) to "explain its non-compliance" after it "repeatedly failed" to declare all its funding sources.

"If TOC is unable to provide good reasons for its non-compliance, IMDA may take appropriate enforcement action," said the authority on Tuesday (Sep 7).

In response to CNA's queries about enforcement actions, IMDA referred to Section 12 of the Broadcasting Act, which allows the authority to cancel or suspend the licence of a broadcasting licensee if it is found to have contravened any conditions of its licence. It can also fine the licensee.

IMDA said it has received queries on its "show cause notice" to TOC. It explained that registered Internet content providers, such as TOC, which engage in the promotion or discussion of political issues relating to Singapore online, are "required to be transparent" about their sources of funding.

"This is to prevent such sites from being controlled by, or coming under the influence of foreign entities or funding, and ensure that there is no foreign influence in domestic politics," added IMDA.

TOC has "repeatedly failed" to declare all its funding sources for its annual declaration for 2020, despite "multiple reminders and extensions", the regulator said.

"TOC has informed IMDA that it does not intend to comply with its obligations under the law. IMDA has therefore asked TOC to explain its non-compliance.

"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."

THREAT OF FOREIGN INTERFERENCE

IMDA said that TOC previously complied with the annual declaration of its funding sources when it first registered in 2018.

But the website has not fully complied with this obligation since 2019. TOC "failed to verify a donor and to clarify discrepancies in its foreign advertising revenue" in its 2019 declaration, said IMDA, adding that it issued a warning for this in May this year.

The regulator said that the threat of foreign interference in Singapore's domestic politics "has always been present".

"Singapore was a target of two such operations in the 1970s involving newspapers The Eastern Sun and the Singapore Herald. These newspapers received funding from foreign sources and ran articles that sought to undermine Singapore's nation-building efforts," said IMDA.

The regulator also cited reports from other countries about "foreign players and their agents" attempting to influence politics by "buying off" political parties and politicians.

"We need to be cautious as the prevalence of the Internet and social media platforms makes it easier to influence large numbers of people," said IMDA.

IMDA said it took a serious view of non-compliance with the Broadcasting (Class Licence) Notification, which covers Internet content providers.

TOC'S RESPONSE

In 2018, TOC said that it would be "engaging with the IMDA to move forward" with registering under the Broadcasting (Class Licence) Notification.

TOC's website states that it is "independently funded" and covers expenses through advertising revenue from its website, Facebook page, membership subscriptions and "occasional donations from well-wishers".

In response to CNA's queries, TOC's chief editor Terry Xu confirmed that the website has received the show cause notice.

He said that TOC was "okay with submitting the declaration if the subscription fees can be exempted from the declaration" of funding sources.

Mr Xu said TOC previously "explained to IMDA how the subscription model works" when asked to "justify" the fees.

"We deem (IMDA's) questioning of the subscription model a form of harassment by the authorities and there is no justification of it doing so," he said.

He added that the matter about TOC's subscription model and its fees "is the sole reason why TOC is not submitting its declaration to IMDA".

Source: CNA/dv

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