Monday, April 24, 2006

REGISTRATION AND ACCOUNTABILITY

After weeks of discussion about new media, attention has shifted to traditional media, thanks to the defamation suit against Chee Soon Juan and the SDP. Since defamation applies equally to online communication, the suit is a warning to internet users as well.

One of the side shows in the case is of additional interest. One of the individuals named in the letter of demand, Arthero Lim, claims he had nothing to do with the allegedly defamatory content in the SDP newsletter since he had resigned from the party and its exco in January. However, lawyers speaking to The Straits Times (Monday 24 April) say he may still be accountable since his name is on the publishing permit, which expires only on 25 August. Lim had apparently written to the Registrar of Societies to remove himself from the party's exco, but had forgotten to write to the Registrar of Newspapers.

It remains to be seen whether the plaintiffs will drop his name from the suit. However, the case chillingly illustrates the effect of registration. The Media Development Authority can ask political (and religious) websites to register (to see the forms, visit mda.gov.sg, which unfortunately is unavailable as I'm writing this). Registration involves naming the individuals who are taking responsibility for the content and providing details such as their addresses and sources of income. It is touted as a "light touch" administrative requirement that can be fulfilled easily. It is distinct from discretionary licensing, in that MDA does not decide whether or not the site can continue operating. However, Arthero Lim's case shows how individuals who have nothing to do with a particular offending article can be sucked into a lawsuit or criminal prosecution. For existing political sites, as well as licensed newspapers, it would be prudent for individuals associated with them to check if they are named in the permits or registration forms, and to manage the risks accordingly.

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