December 20, 2013

I am in Singapore at the moment, by chance witnessing the death and dismemberment of a popular online news outlet.

I have seen scant outside coverage of this rather strange, censorious saga, so I’m writing a tiny bit about it in hopes of helping spread the word. Actually, I want to help spread two words: Kitchen Closed.

That is the announcement now plastered boldly across the homepage of what used to be known as Breakfast Network.

World of Shadows

Journalism is a tricky pursuit in Singapore. As a Fulbright researcher and visiting journalism professor here a few years back, I saw firsthand the city-state’s paradoxical existence, acting according to one researcher as both “a regional media center and a site of media repression.”

In respect to the latter, a journalism educator here once described the reporting roadblocks to me as a “world of shadows.” It is part of what many Singaporean student and professional journalists refer to loosely as legal, political and economic forces in the country with the authority to control or punish individuals who criticize the powers-that-be, upend the status quo or cause controversies of any kind.

Some of these shadows are real and others undoubtedly imagined. But either way, they lead to what Singaporeans call OB (out-of-bounds) markers – limits on how much to rant, how far to dig, how boldly to challenge, how deeply to report.

It was in this world that veteran Singaporean journalist Bertha Henson launched Breakfast Network, less than a year after leaving her high-level editor job at The Straits Times, Singapore’s leading daily newspaper. BN began in February 2013 as a media criticism blog, a digital home for Henson’s musings on what impressed, amused and dismayed her within the Singapore press scene she had long toiled within.

It grew over time into a more wide-ranging news and views site, featuring the perspectives and original reporting of other Singaporeans. These included Henson’s students at the National University of Singapore (NUS), where she serves as a journalist-in-residence.

Along with an increase in contributors (one paid full-time staffer and the rest “citizen volunteers”), Breakfast Network enjoyed a rapid uptick in web traffic and general buzz. Henson even decided to start a related company, Breakfast Network Pte Ltd (BNPL).

As she explained in a post on Yahoo! News Singapore that originally appeared on Breakfast Network:

“The site was set up because there were like-minded individuals who wanted to report and write and we thought, what the heck, why not set up something cheap? … What we didn’t reckon on was that the site would gain fans so quickly, so much so we had to keep buying more server space. And despite being a pro bono site, there were readers who wanted more and more. So, I thought why not do the site ‘properly,’ set up a legal entity to do business and pay for a more-or-less proper newsroom operation?”

Soon after, the Singapore government stepped in.

A Thicket of Rules

Late last month, officials informed Henson that Breakfast Network must register with the country’s Media Development Authority (MDA). Henson described the accompanying regulations as “a thicket of rules.” She also found the registration forms onerous, containing vague or downright indecipherable declarations.

The registration process called for the disclosure of the names and personal details of BN editors and overseers (“person(s) responsible for and/or involved in the provision, management and/or operation of the website”). The MDA subsequently requires regular updates on “changes in transactions and editorial content or staffing,” which Henson saw mostly as extra hassles and time away from fulfilling the BN’s mission of being “an experiment in forms of journalism.”

By registering, Breakfast Network would also have to comply with a national law forbidding media companies from accepting funding from certain foreign sources. While straightforward advertising from reputable businesses is apparently OK, almost any other type of outside investment is prohibited. Bottom line, the Singapore government – which Henson playfully calls the G – wants its media entities to remain locally owned.

While she joked “we never did figure on getting a … Russian oligarch or the CIA to dump money into BN,” she did have real concerns about these upfront funding limitations – given how tough it is for online news start-ups to make money and find sponsors.

As she pondered whether to sign the forms or cease operations, she shook her fist at the irony that – under Singapore regulations – Breakfast Network may have actually been better off producing crappier, less transparent journalism.

“Perhaps, we should have gone guerilla, underground, use some server from abroad and all sorts of pseudonyms to confuse everyone about who are the people really behind the site,” she wrote in late November after she received the MDA registration notice. “Then we could allow all sorts of people to post comments, do plenty of drumming and escalate the number of eyeballs. No need to worry about making money to cover cost and to hire good people to raise the quality of content.”

Ultimately, given the “thicket of rules” and the amount and personal nature of the requested information, she wanted more time to fully understand the implications of registering. According to Henson, the MDA required her consent and the completed forms in two weeks. Henson and her Breakfast Network team asked for a month’s extension.

The MDA’s reply: Nope. We’ll give you an extra week, that’s it. Henson fumed, deciding instead to close the kitchen and shut down Breakfast Network.

That’s the death. Here’s the dismemberment.

Cry Father, Cry Mother

With the site shuttered, Henson told readers content would now appear on the Breakfast Network Facebook page.

The MDA’s reply: Nope. That would be an end-run around the country’s media laws. As the MDA sees it, if Breakfast Network exists in any form, on any platform, it still must be registered and abide by the related requirements.

To steal Henson’s description, this is where the story gets “stranger and stranger or curiouser and curiouser.” You see, right now, the BN Facebook page remains online and active, ostensibly against the law. But Henson is not running it. She says she has quit Breakfast Network and is closing down the affiliated company. So it is simply some volunteers overseeing a social media account that happens to be called Breakfast Network. Must it still choose to either shut down or register for approval with the Singapore government?

Henson wrote about all this several days ago on her personal blog in a rant post she admits is a full-blown KPKB. The term ‘kow peh kow bu’ – a coarse colloquialism in Hokkien dialect – translates in English to ‘cry father, cry mother.’ Informally, it equates to a diatribe against people who you feel are making no sense.

Her KPKB is headlined “Why is MDA making a meal out of BN?” As she asks, “What the (insert your choice swear word here) is MDA up to? Why me? Why BN? Isn’t it enough that we write responsible stuff? With bylines and all? We even correct mistakes openly!!! … We just don’t want to sign your papers!”

So did the government single out Henson and Breakfast Network because it did not like the content or tone of the site? Hard to say, but Henson wrote that among her first thoughts upon receiving the MDA’s registration letter were the following questions: “Did we do something wrong? Which article pissed off who in the G? And, yes, was this a way of saying that Big Brother is watching?”

Media Destruction Authority

Longtime Singaporean journalist and journalism educator Cherian George is one of the country’s leading digital media researchers and media critics. Among other works, he is the author of the 2012 book “Freedom From The Press: Journalism and State Power in Singapore.” (Disclosure: George and I worked together briefly at Nanyang Technological University during the time I spent in Singapore as a Fulbright researcher and visiting professor.)

George believes the MDA’s targeting of Breakfast Network rises to a level of government interference not seen before in the history of the Internet in Singapore.

As he argued on his blog, “For all the thunderclouds and occasional lightning strikes that bloggers faced in Singapore, we at least used to be able to point to one, clear silver lining: Not one political site had been banned in 17 years of ‘light touch’ Internet regulation. Today … that silver lining is officially history. Through the government’s clumsy handling of one site that didn’t even pose a serious threat, Singapore has now stumbled into the company of authoritarian regimes that are prepared to outlaw politically inconvenient blogs. … Blogs [previously] could be punished if what they published broke the law – but they were never expected to persuade regulators that they deserved the right to publish before they were allowed to do so.”

Kinmun Lee, who runs the popular Singaporean blog mrbrown.comsimilarly stated with his customary snarky aplomb, “I think the MDA should change their name to Media Destruction Authority. I don’t see any development here, just shackles and rules designed to ensure only the ‘right’ kind of content (the kind The G approves of) get seen.”

The MDA asserts it is in no way going after content. As officials shared in a public statement earlier this month, “MDA would like to reiterate that the content is not the issue. Rather, it is the mode of operation, i.e. via a corporate entity which means there is greater possibility for foreign influence. … MDA’s registration requirement seeks to uphold the principle that politics must remain a matter for Singapore and Singaporeans alone. This principle is not new and it has been a long standing one. There is no departure from our Internet regulatory framework.”

Critics counter that this framework – and the new burdensome registration process embedded within it – has the potential to act as a broader-based scheme to shut down critics.

According to Braema Mathi, the president of the Singaporean human rights organization Maruah (which translates to ‘dignity’ in Malay), “The closure of Breakfast Network’s website demonstrates that regardless of MDA’s stated intent, the registration requirement has chilled and reduced the space for free expression in Singapore. As a regulator tasked with developing the media landscape in Singapore, MDA should consider the substantive impact of its decisions, not just its own subjective intent. Registration requirements can operate to censor free expression as effectively as, and more insidiously than, outright demands to remove content.”

Henson agrees, arguing for an additional reconsideration of how such demands fit in with the changing online universe. “I think the G should think a bit harder about imposing regulations on this new environment that is called the Internet,” she wrote in her goodbye Breakfast post. “Because some people believe it should remain un-regulated; some think that conceding to one piece of regulation is a slippery slope that will push online views into a shape resembling the mainstream media. And that is not what people who report and write online sign up to be.”

The Singapore Way
Earlier this month, hours before my flight arrived in Singapore, a riot erupted in an area of the country known as Little India after the accidental death of an Indian national. The subsequent clash between a crowd of 400 mostly low-paid foreign workers and 300 local law enforcement officers resulted in vehicles set on fire, flipped police cars, arrests, deportations and injured police. In a country iconic and infamous for its public control and low crime rate, it was a genuinely historic event, the most violent incident in Singapore in more than four decades.

In its immediate aftermath, Henson reflected on the riot for Breakfast Network. As she asked at the start of her piece, “What did we wake up to this morning? What lies ahead? Everything has changed now. … It is a shock to the Singapore system, to think that something so ‘foreign’ could happen here. But it did, and we should start to think harder about the ‘Singapore way.’”

A day later, she closed the kitchen.

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Daniel Reimold, Ph.D., is an assistant professor of journalism at Saint Joseph's University in Philadelphia, where he also advises The Hawk student newspaper. He maintains…
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