The legal position of blogs during the election period has been clarified, but intriguing questions remain about how these alternative media might behave, and what the government's response might be. There are certainly loopholes that enterprising media activists can exploit. First, they can use the web until they are asked to register as political sites. Second, they can restrict themselves to using email, which is outside the ambit of the registration requirement. Third, they can host their sites overseas. In the first two scenarios, they would still be subject to "post-publication" punishment if they fall foul of defamation or other laws. However, they are not subject to "prior restraint" (being shut up even before saying anything, which is what discretionary licensing and banning amounts to, and which is regarded in free speech discourse as the most illiberal form of control).
In one possible scenario, all but a small handful of internet users will be sufficiently spooked by the government warnings that they will self-censor. The confusion surrounding the rules makes this scenario more likely. The newspaper, Today, contributed to this confusion in an article on 21 April. Attempting to educate readers about the rules now that the election writ had been issued, Today declared: "From now on, the gloves have to stay on. For bloggers, that is." It added: "What this means is that all political parties and individuals not registered with the Media Development Authority are not allowed to indulge in anything that can be construed as campaigning - until the elections are over." This is completely wrong. Parties can in fact use the internet for campaigning; they just can't use some of its multimedia and interactive features. As for individuals, they are free to use the internet as long as they are not asked to register - precisely the opposite of what Today claimed.
A second scenario, at the other extreme, is that a large number of Singaporeans will exploit the existing loopholes, emboldened by their relatively unfettered use of the medium for the past several years. This will put the government in a dilemma. The fact is that the Singapore government, while infamous for its intolerance of dissent, has never been one to go after large numbers of ordinary citizens. Its actions have been mainly against professional politicians and the occasional individual who is deemed to be a political opponent. If the government now tries to prosecute 10, 20 individuals for breaching internet electioneering rules, it would be entering uncharted political territory. It will be extremely difficult to convince the majority of Singaporeans that such individuals really are a threat to stability, if the offenders are just ordinary Singaporeans and if their online comments are not particularly inflammatory. Trying to prosecute them would be a public relations fiasco.
One of the remaining grey areas is the status of sites that may try to provide independent news coverage of the elections, as opposed to highly-opinionated commentary. As noted in an earlier posting below, the letter of the law provides an exception to licensed news providers (newspapers and broadcasters), including their websites. Thus, anything that Straits Times Interactive carries - including podcasts, streaming video, editorials telling Singaporeans how to vote, etc - is exempt from the internet electioneering laws. Independent sites are not, even if their content is identical. However, a group of media activists that tries to provide independent news reports on their website could, if challenged, argue that they are keeping to the spirit of the election rules, in that they are dealing in news, not advertising. The government may still win the legal argument on technical grounds, but it would probably lose the moral argument: it is going to be hard to persuade public opinion that independent citizens who abide by the standards of professional journalism do not deserve the same treatment as the institutional media. That would be tantamount to saying that WHO speaks is more important than WHAT they say.
In parallel with the legal response, the government is also engaged in rhetorical campaign against alternative media. Blogging (which is merely a technology for easily editing websites, and has been put to a wide variety of uses) is being routinely stereotyped as mere entertainment, in an attempt to delegitimise the form in the eyes of the majority of Singaporeans who may not be technologically literate enough to know better. Visual media are being described as more emotional. Print media, on the other hand, are being associated with more rational and responsible discourse. However, this does not mean that print is subject to more relaxed regulation: since colonial times, newspapers and magazines have been subject to discretionary licensing.