HONG KONG – Singapore regularly tops global rankings as one of the most pro-business countries in the world. But running a media business is proving to be an exception.

This week social-commentary website Breakfast Network decided to close down rather than register under regulations on online news operations overseen by the Media Development Authority.

Breakfast Network was told by the MDA at the end of November that it would have to register.

Part of the regulation process would have required the company to guarantee not to receive any foreign funding “for provision, management or operation.” The stipulation is intended to prevent popular news sites from coming under foreign influence and to prevent foreign agencies from influencing Singapore politics.

In June, Singapore informed some 16 websites, including Yahoo Singapore, that they needed licenses under the new ‘Online News Licensing Scheme’. The MDA justified their introduction by saying that they merely put websites on the same legal footing as Singapore’s broadcast media. In July it told another site that it too must sign up.

The MDA says that Breakfast Network is not being regulated under the new regulations but, older ones. “We had required Breakfast Network to register because we had assessed that as a corporate entity providing political commentary and news, it may be susceptible to foreign influence by way of foreign funding. This registration requirement upholds the principle that politics must remain a matter for Singapore and Singaporeans alone,” the MDA told Variety in a statement.
“This principle is not new and it has been a long standing one. Under the class license which has been in place since 1996, certain groups such as political associations and political websites may be required to register with the MDA. Such registration requests are not new and they are not determined by a site’s content or reach.”

The June regulations required sites posting more than one Singapore news story per day and with daily traffic of over 50,000 unique Singapore visitors must agree to government rules on content and to make a financial deposit that could be confiscated.

Breakfast Network’s owner-operator Bertha Henson, a long time Straits Times journalist and an associate of Tembusu College, posted a detailed explanation of her decision to close down the site on a separate blog and removed all content from Breakfast Network except a “Kitchen Closed” front page.

She said she remained puzzled by the MDA’s decision – “why now?”, she asked — and described as “quite tragic” the MDA’s suggestion that registration does not make life harder for start-up companies. She described how even editors working pro bono needed to be named in the registration documents. And she also worried that the “[regulatory] slippery slope will push online views into a shape resembling the mainstream media.”

Other commentators have been far less mild-mannered. The Techinasia site said that Singapore’s foreign-ownership regulations had not stopped foreign media “jumping all over” this week’s riot in Little India, nor prevented Singaporeans reading those foreign media reports.

Henson says she will now take time to consider her next move and meanwhile retreat to blogging on Facebook, possibly until such time as Singapore’s Broadcasting Act is revised.
But she also suggested that next time she might seek more financially muscular backers. Singaporeans only need apply.