Monday, October 03, 2005


In 2001, new regulations under the Parliamentary Elections Act allowed the use of the internet for promoting political parties or candidates, by the parties or candidates themselves. Parties/candidates can use the internet as a publicity vehicle during the election period, but cannot exploit the technology’s powerful mobilisational capabilities. For example, they cannot push out online petitions. They are also limited to a “positive list” of acceptable practices, which has not been updated to include newer technologies. As a result, audio/video-streaming is banned.

Non-party websites that have been deemed to be "political" in nature (eg are banned from carrying election publicity.

The Parliamentary Elections Act (PEA) regulates publicity during elections (from the day the elections are announced through a “writ” until the close of polls). The law pertains mainly to election advertising, but “election advertising” is defined broadly enough to include “material that can reasonably be regarded as intended… to… enhance the standing of… political parties, candidates or groups of candidates”, whether or not their names are mentioned. Furthermore, such material can be treated as election advertising even if it is “intended to achieve any other purpose as well”. This suggests that election commentary could come under the PEA.

News is exempted from the PEA. The news exception applies to publication “in a newspaper in any medium or in a radio or television broadcast”. The phrase “newspaper in any medium” presumably includes online newspapers. Does this mean that a citizen-journalist could start a news blog about the elections without worrying about the PEA? Not necessarily. Although “newspapers” are not defined within the Act, Singapore law does define newspapers within the Newspaper and Printing Presses Act. Reading the NPPA together with the PEA, we can assume that the PEA is referring to licensed newspapers. Since standalone websites do not have newspaper permits, they might not qualify for the PEA’s news exception. The upshot of this is that the election coverage of Straits Times Interactive would be considered news, but that of Little Speck or Think Centre might not. Similarly, streaming video or podcasts on a Mediacorp site (licensed under the Broadcasting Act) would be exempted from the PEA as news, but similar content on an independent website would not.

Also exempted from the PEA is the “transmission by an individual to another individual, on a non-commercial basis on what is commonly known as the Internet, of his own political views”. In other words, one-to-one communication will not be treated as election advertising. However, emailing a group of people would come under the PEA if it “can reasonably be regarded as intended… to… enhance the standing of… political parties, candidates or groups of candidates”. (Does this only apply to “relevant persons” or to all individuals? – to check)

What then does the PEA require? Election advertising must carry the names and addresses of the printers and publishers. Advertising is banned on polling day, although pre-existing posters and web material need not be taken down. The PEA also bans the publication of any election survey – including those covering voting intentions or election issues – during the election period, until the moment that polls close. Also banned during that time is the publication of exit polls and forecasts. This ban applies to all persons, including the news media.

In 2001, the Government instituted new regulations under the PEA governing the internet: the Parliamentary Elections (Election Advertising) Regulations (PER).

Candidates and parties are allowed to use the internet for election advertising. Photos and manifestoes, membership recruitment messages, and announcements of meetings on the web or through email are all explicitly permitted in a so-called “positive list” in the PER. Chat rooms are also allowed.

Emailed advertising must comply with certain conditions. First, the email must include a clear method for the recipient to get in touch with the sender and to remove himself from the email list. The sender must comply with such a request. Second, the email must not contain any statement requesting (even implicitly) that the recipient forward it to others or to republish it. Although it is not an offence for the recipient voluntarily to forward an email or web link, note that (unless you are a candidate or party) only individual-to-individual email is permitted. An individual who receives a campaign message from a party and then forwards it to a group list would be in violation of the PEA. In effect, these rules limit the “viral” effect of the internet, slowing down the spread of campaign messages. Parties that have built up large mailings list would therefore have an advantage over those that count on recipients to forward their messages.

Parties/candidates are permitted to run online discussion forums during elections, but must appoint a moderator who is answerable to the authorities. The moderator must remove “without delay” any postings as directed by the authorities. The moderator must also keep a record of all messages submitted.

Other than parties and candidates, the PER also covers what the Act calls "relevant persons" - defined as individuals or groups (other than parties/candidates) deemed by the Media Development Authority to be providing "political" content. This relates to the MDA's powers under internet class licensing system. Since the mid-1990s, the internet regulators have had the authority to ask "political" and "religious" sites to register themselves. This does not amount to requiring clearance/permission for publication. It is instead an accountability mechanism. Registration requires furnishing the government with details about the individuals behind a political/religious site. Think Centre's website is registered as a political site. Sintercom was asked to register before the 2001 elections, but chose to close down and relocate overseas instead.

Under the PER, "relevant persons" (to sum up: non-party sites that MDA has declared as political sites) are banned from engaging in election advertising.

As at March 2006, the number of "political" sites is small. The question is whether MDA will require more sites to register ahead of the 2006 GE, turning them into "relevant persons" under the PER and banning them from election commentary.

What about blogs? So far, no blog has been declared a political site, but since blogs are nothing more than easily-editable websites, there doesn't appear to be any legal reason why a local blog could not be required to register as a political site.

Many Singaporeans feel that there's a need for a truly independent source of news and commentary during elections. Logistically, it would not be difficult to put together a team of citizen journalists and volunteer editors to cover election rallies and put out detailed reports and commentaries via emailed newsletters and a website. South Korea's Ohmynews has shown the power of such citizen journalism. In Singapore, it may be hard to sustain such an effort on a permanent basis, but there would probably be enough energy and interest during election time to get such a project going.

Under the PER, the legality of such an initiative would depend on whether the MDA considers it a "political" site. If so, it would not qualify to use the internet as parties/candidates, nor would it necessarily qualify for the PER exemption that licensed news providers enjoy.

Thursday, September 15, 2005


Parliament amended the Films Act to declare moving pictures to be an illegal medium for furthering any political objective. The Government’s justification for such a sweeping move was basically that video is an irrational and emotional medium, and should not be exploited for political competition. The additional impact is to control a medium that has become increasingly accessible to small producers, in terms of technology and cost.

The Act bans anyone from importing, making, reproducing, exhibiting, or possessing for the purpose of distributing, a “party political film”. If found guilty, the offender can be fined up to $100,000 or imprisoned up to two years.

If you think there’s a loophole in the “party political” label, think again. The law defines this genre to cover not only “an advertisement made by or on behalf of any political party in Singapore” but even any film “made by any person and directed towards any political end in Singapore”. A film is deemed "directed towards a political end" if it includes "any matter which is intended or likely to affect voting in any election or national referendum in Singapore" or "either partisan or biased references to or comments on any political matter".

Although the old-fashioned term “film” is used, the Act defines this medium broadly, to include not just celluloid, but also digital material that can be displayed “as wholly or partly visual moving pictures”. This seems to cover CD-ROMs with some video content, streaming video on the internet, and so on.

So, at its broadest, the Act bans anyone from having anything to do with showing any moving images intended to further any political cause.

The only apparent wiggle-room is in the intentions of the offenders. A person is said to commit an offence if he distributes or shows a film “knowing or having reasonable cause to believe” that the film is party-political.

Therefore, it looks as if the Act is not meant to catch the filmmaker who makes a political film by accident (which could happen if a film’s message is exploited for political ends after it is made – for example, Jack Neo’s “The Best Bet” could be screened to serve an anti-casino platform during an election, even if such use wasn’t Neo’s original intent; in such a scenario, Neo would probably be safe). In addition, distributors oblivious to the content of a film could plead ignorance.

It should also be pointed out that the Act does not appear to make it an offence to watch a party political film. Possession of any film without a valid certificate is a crime. However, since the Singapore authorities' broad approach to censorship is to tackle producers and distributors, rather than go after individual consumers, it may be safe to assume that the state will not prosecute individuals who possess a political film for personal consumption.

In a letter to the media in May 2005, the information ministry (MICA) clarified how it would interpret the Act’s provisions. MICA said that “it is not true that all films with political themes will be disallowed”.

“The ban here is only on films which deal with political issues in a partisan manner, such as a film aimed at furthering the cause of a political party or influencing the outcome of an election, or which presents a one-sided view of political issues of the day. Unbiased reporting of political issues on film would not be unlawful,” MICA’s letter said.

MICA also restated the official rationale for the ban: “ ‘Party political films' are disallowed because they are an undesirable medium for political debate in Singapore. They can present political issues in a sensational manner, evoking emotional rather than rational reactions, without affording the opportunity for a meaningful rebuttal or explanation to audience and viewers.”

In principle, the legislation applies equally to the ruling party and to the Opposition. However, it disadvantages the Opposition disproportionately, for two reasons.

First, with government-supervised mainstream media already biased towards the ruling party, the Opposition is more dependent than the PAP on alternative channels such as video (and the internet). Second, the PAP’s ideological dominance is such that much of its platform now sounds like “common sense” rather than patently “political”. Third, the Act does not apply to "any film sponsored by the Government". Being the government of the day allows it to couch its messages as ostensibly apolitical “national education”. Thus, while a video biography of JB Jeyaretnam would probably fall foul of the Films Act as furthering a “political end”, a video biography of Lee Kuan Yew would be regarded by regulators as part of the Singapore story; and if that documentary were sponsored by MDA, it would be automatically exempt from the Films Act.

[Thanks to Mr Wang Says So for correcting some of the details in an earlier version of this post.]