Shuttered Singapore media website may hit back from overseas

Online shut down

Singapore’s The Online Citizen website shut down

By Ivan Lim
Former AJA President, Contributor to AsiaN  

SINGAPORE: An independent socio-political website, at the heart of a recent defamation suit by Prime Minister Lee Hsien Loong, has gone offline, but it could be back in action by operating from outside Singapore.

The Online Citizen (TOC) shut down on October 15 after the authorities withdrew its licence for its refusal to furnish full details of its sources of funding annually.

The turn of events came after TOC editor Terry Xu successfully paid in full hefty libel damages to PM Lee and legal fees.

On Sept 1, Mr Xu was found guilty of defaming Mr Lee in a Facebook post titled “PM Lee’s wife Ho Ching weirdly shared article on cutting ties with family members.”

The Aug 15, 2019 article touched on the rift between PM and his siblings, the will of his late father- founder of modern Singapore, Prime Minister Lee KuanYew – and the family property at 38 Oxley Road.

The damages amounted to $210,000 and the legal fees to $87,852. In total, Mr Xu was able to raise $299,000 swiftly, thanks to public donations by 2,778 individuals.

He had pitched his appeal for help, citing it was “not (out of) pity” but more to signal to political leaders “they should not resort to defamation suits” to silence critics.

But the alternative media site’s troubles were not over. On Oct 15, internet regulator Infocomm Media Development Authority (IMDA) suspended TOC’s class licence, faulting the news platform for not complying with its licence conditions as a registered Internet Content Provider (ICP).

The IMDA said it acted “to prevent such ICPs from being controlled by foreign actors, or coming under the influence of foreign entities or funding, and to ensure that there is no foreign influence in domestic politics.”

In response, TOC has sought a judicial review in the High Court against the IMDA, arguing the agency had overstepped its authority by closing its social media accounts.

The IMDA “merely controls the licence of broadcasting services in Singapore and … so cannot reasonably expect TOC to cease all its operations outside of Singapore,” Mr Xu said.

In the meantime, the blogger is looking at various options for reviving TOC, like operating from overseas.

The exit of the popular online news platform is bemoaned by some netizens as a setback for airing divergent views given the dominance of a mainstream press that purveys politically correct standpoints.

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