IMDA warns of enforcement towards The Online Citizen for failure to declare funding

The Infocomm Media Development Authority (IMDA) has warned that it could take enforcement action against community blogging platform The Online Citizen (TOC) if it did not give good reasons for repeatedly failing to declare all its funding sources for last year. According to IMDA, this was in spite of several reminders and extensions.

IMDA said there is no reason for TOC not to comply, as other registered Internet content providers offer this information in order to be transparent about their sources of funding. TOC had previously complied with the annual declaration when it was first registered in 2018, but has not fully complied with this obligation since 2019. TOC had also failed to verify a donor and to clarify discrepancies in its foreign advertising revenue in its 2019 declaration, for which IMDA had issued a warning on 4 May 2021.

TOC said in a Facebook post on Monday that it received a letter from IMDA to state why it should not be suspended by the regulator by 13 September 2021, and that it had not filled up the "because of IMDA's unjustified attempt to scrutinise how TOC conducts its business". "TOC had offered to fill in the declaration if the subscription portion could be exempted from the declaration, [but] IMDA rejected the proposal," TOC added.

According to IMDA, registered Internet content providers which are engaged in the promotion or discussion of political issues relating to Singapore online, are required to be transparent about their sources of funding. This is to prevent such sites from being controlled by, or coming under the influence of foreign entities or funding, and ensure that there is no foreign influence in domestic politics.

"In the 1970s, newspapers The Eastern Sun and the Singapore Herald received funding from foreign sources and ran articles that sought to undermine Singapore’s nation-building efforts. There have also been reports from other countries, that foreign players and their agents attempted to influence their politics by buying off political parties and individual politicians," IMDA said. It warned that it needs to be cautious as the prevalence of the Internet and social media platforms make it easier to influence large numbers of people.

Separately, prime minister Lee Hsien Loong recently on two defamation lawsuits against TOC editor Terry Xu and writer of a TOC article Rubaashini Shunmuganathan, and was awarded SG$210,000 in total by the High Court last week. According to Channel NewsAsia, Shunmuganathan published an article about PM Lee's dispute with his siblings over their family home in Oxley Road which was found to be defematory by Justice Audrey Lim. Lim also granted an injunction sought by PM Lee which now restricts Xu from publishing or disseminating the article's defamatory allegations further, CNA said.

Xu was previously served a writ of summons by PM Lee in 2019 after he refused to take down an article published on TOC titled “PM Lee’s wife, Ho Ching weirdly shares article on cutting ties with family members”. The writ of summons alleged that the article contained statements that are "false and baseless", and that it was intended "disparage and impugn" PM Lee as well as his office as the prime minister.

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