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Singapore bloggers to protest Internet restrictions

Students using computers/FILE

Students using computers/FILE

SINGAPORE, Jun 3 – Singapore bloggers are planning a rally and an “Internet blackout” this week to protest controversial new rules they say will muzzle freedom of speech, organisers said Monday.

A coalition of 34 prominent bloggers called “Free My Internet” will stage the rally on Saturday, a week after the surprise regulations kicked in on June 1 requiring news websites — including one operated by US-based Yahoo! — to obtain licenses from the city-state’s official media regulator.

The bloggers will also replace their homepages with black screens featuring the words “#Freemyinternet” for 24 hours on Thursday.

“There is a need for this physical protest because numerous dialogues with the government over the last five years about liberalisation and deregulating the Internet have actually concluded in the opposite,” said Choo Zheng Xi, a spokesman for the group.

“We want the government to know that the people need to be consulted, and that parliament needs to be consulted before sweeping changes are made to legislation,” said Choo, the co-founder of popular political website The Online Citizen.

Volunteer-run blogs have gained popularity as an alternative news and opinion source in Singapore, where the mainstream media is widely perceived as pro-government.

The Media Development Authority (MDA) last week sought to allay fears that the new rules were aimed at the city-state’s feisty blogging community, pointing out that blogs were not considered news portals.

“The licensing framework only applies to sites that focus on reporting Singapore news and are notified by MDA that they meet the licensing criteria,” the regulator said Friday.

Choo however said the authority’s public assurances did not tally with the broad powers of the new rules.

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“If they wanted to limit the impact of the new regulations, they would have passed something that is limited in its scope,” he said.

Under the new rules, websites that have at least 50,000 unique visitors from Singapore every month and publish at least one local news article per week over a period of two months must obtain an annual licence.

Websites granted a licence will have to remove “prohibited content” such as articles that undermine “racial or religious harmony” within 24 hours of being notified by the authorities.

Licenced websites will also have to put up Sg$50,000 ($39,500) as a “performance bond” that can be forfeited if the regulations are not followed.

Choo said the organisers expected many ordinary Singaporeans to join Saturday’s protest, but declined to comment on their expected turnout.

Protests in Singapore are restricted to a free-speech park called Speakers’ Corner in line with strict laws against street demonstrations.

Two major rallies against the government’s immigration policy held earlier this year in the officially designated protest zone garnered crowds of more than 3,000, making them the country’s biggest protests in decades.

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