ASIA MEDIA STAFF WRITES – In a recent article, Human Rights Watch labeled moves by Singapore’s censorship body as “a serious setback for freedom of expression on the Internet.” These criticisms arose after the Media Development Authority (MDA) asked a few notable alternative news websites to apply for licensing to keep publishing. The most recent website asked to register is The Online Citizen (TOC).

Phil Robertson, deputy Asia director of HRW, said that due to strict controls on traditional sources of media like print, radio, and television, Singaporeans were forced to go online for alternative and independent views, and that the recent calls by the MDA for registration could shrink or even destroy this online space.

Robertson painted a bleak picture for Singapore’s online future and said, “As more websites are forced to register, the power of the government to control what Singaporeans see on the Internet will grow too.”

The concerns presented by Robertson are definitely not unfounded. But previous websites like the Independent Singapore and Mothership.sg that were required to register have not seen heavy-handed MDA or other government authority interference with its content since registration.

The official statement from the MDA concerning TOC’s registration then might actually hold some truth to it, “As with other registered sites such as The Independent and Mothership.sg, the registration does not entail changes to the content standards and will not affect what TOC may publish on its website.”

Robertson warns that, “Singapore regulators play down Internet registrations while amassing the tools for future censorship of online news sites.” But, this may be all that the MDA seeks to accomplish with registration, ensuring that the tools to censor are there, but that does not mean they will use them.

It just might be a case of better to have them and not need them, then to need them and not have them. Perhaps painting the future online presence of Singapore as freedom-less and full of censorship may be a bit premature, seeing how the authorities have not used every tool in their new toolbox.