Political parties and bloggers fear that government’s regulations against podcasting and blogs during elections will have a chilling effect on free speech
By SUE-ANN CHIA, AARON LOW and SERENE LUO
THREE political parties poised to launch their campaigns online are scrapping their plans after rules on Internet electioneering were made clear on Monday.
But the parties slammed the Government’s decision to ban podcasting and videocasting during elections as an attempt to curb alternative voices.
Bloggers, on the other hand, had a mixed reaction to the news that they can comment on politics but with certain caveats thrown in.
Internet experts and lawyers said the Government’s position on these new Internet tools is to be expected, as it wants to confine political debate here to the mainstream media as long as it can and uphold a serious tone for Singapore politics.
Many also expressed concern that it will curtail space and opportunities for political discourse.
They were reacting to Senior Minister of State for Information, Communications and the Arts Balaji Sadasivan, who clarified Internet rules on election advertising in Parliament on Monday.
He commented specifically on blogs, as well as podcasts and videocasts, or vodcasts, which are online audio and video clips that can be downloaded into a multimedia player to be listened to or viewed later.
He said such streaming of “explicit political content” by political parties or individuals is banned under election advertising rules set in 2001.
Bloggers can discuss politics but have to register their site if they “persistently propagate, promote or circulate political issues relating to Singapore.”
Once they are required to register, they will have to remove from their site any material deemed by the law to be election advertising during the campaign period.
This period is from the time the writ of election is issued until the close of the last polling station on Polling Day.
The Singapore Democratic Party (SDP), the first political party to use podcasts on its website since last August, said the latest move “deals a crushing blow to the SDP’s strategy.”
“The party will consult IT experts to see what can be done to salvage its plans,” said SDP chief Chee Soon Juan in a statement.
Workers’ Party (WP) chairman Sylvia Lim also said the party now has to scrap plans for podcasting to promote the party during the polls.
“It is limiting but we will work within the law. This just shows the PAP does not trust Singaporeans to make informed choices,” she said.
Mr Tan Tarn How of the Institute of Policy Studies said: “Such rules should not be there in the first place. In a democracy, you want the people and political parties to have access to as many tools as possible for a free flow of information.”
Commentators also noted that the ban on podcasting and videocasting means rally speeches and events cannot be put online and hence will have limited reach.
Those interviewed said the rules on blogs remain vague, despite the clarification.
For instance, how will the line between discussion and “persistent propagation” of a political message be drawn?
Litigation lawyer Adrian Tan said “political content” includes anything that espouses a political platform, or promotes or denigrates a political party.
“The minister’s clarification is aimed at getting people who want to discuss political matters to come out and declare themselves to be players,” he said.
It may also be aimed at clearing up the ambiguity about political personalities, such as Dr Chee and WP’s James Gomez, who have their own personal blogs.
“Previously, it was unclear if they would escape regulation. But now it seems they can’t escape it,” he said.
Academic Mark Cenite, who teaches media law at Nanyang Technological University, said: “This has a chilling effect as people may steer clear of discussing politics, as they fear running foul of the law.”
Bloggers – like WP council member Goh Meng Seng, who has a personal blog – said they will adopt a wait-and-see attitude. “If they tell me to, I may or may not register. In fact, it goes against my principle as every individual should have a right to express his own views,” said Mr Goh.
However, teacher Victor Yang, 31, who blogs on politics here, said: “It’s a step forward.
“There is a generation that is trying to work towards more leeway and fewer restrictions, and by coming out to say this, the Government is acknowledging that the electorate is changing.”
FAQs on using the Internet during elections
Singapore began regulating the Internet in 1996 with policymakers promising to do so with a “light touch.”
Rules on Internet campaigning during elections were introduced before the 2001 General Election. Changes to the Parliamentary Elections Act that year allowed political parties to campaign online, but limits were set.
The Government issued a “positive list” of what they can do.
What is allowed: photographs and biographies of candidates, party histories and manifestos and moderated chats and discussion forums.
Non-party political sites cannot campaign for any party. The reason: to ensure a level playing field, and that political parties do not make use of non-party political sites to bypass the rules.
The Government said then the rules are needed to ensure political campaigning is done responsibly and with seriousness.
On Monday, Senior Minister of State Balaji Sadasivan clarified that podcasting and videocasting cannot be used to spread political content during elections. Bloggers can discuss politics, but will be required to register their site if they consistently espouse a political line.
Here is a list of commonly asked questions The Straits Times posed to lawyers on the Internet and elections:
Can individuals put up podcasts or videocasts of political rallies on their blog or website?
What about pictures of political rallies?
Not allowed either.
Can bloggers talk about political parties and their candidates?
Yes, but they must avoid consistently supporting or criticising political parties and their candidates. Dr Balaji said bloggers can give their own personal views about a candidate or political party. But if they use their blog to promote political ideals in a consistent fashion or show support for one political party, they are considered to be party political and must register.
Can bloggers link their site to political parties’ websites?
Can individuals send out SMS or e-mail containing political content during the campaign period?
Yes, but they need to obey the laws of land, including libel laws. Mass SMS and e-mail by individuals may run foul of the law.
Can political parties send out SMS or e-mail?
Yes. But they must indicate who is sending the messages and on whose behalf. Such messages must not include a “chain-letter” appeal, asking recipients to send them on. They must also stop sending to people who ask them to.