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=== PHOTO CAPTURED ONLINE===Terry Xu (right), chief editor of the Online Citizen, at a public hearing in Singapore on the definitions of facts and truth. Photo: govsg youtube screenshot

Singapore website The Online Citizen goes offline after funding disclosure row with government

  • Singapore’s media regulator said the popular website The Online Citizen failed to fully comply with funding disclosure requirements
  • Founded in 2006, the website gained a reputation over the years as a platform for alternative political views in a media landscape dominated by pro-establishment voices
The Online Citizen, one of Singapore’s oldest independent political news websites, went offline on Thursday, hours ahead of a government-imposed deadline for it to suspend operations for failing to fully declare its funding sources after a long dispute.
The development comes just days after Prime Minister Lee Hsien Loong’s government tabled new legislation targeting foreign interference and funding of local politics.

The action taken against The Online Citizen, founded in 2006, pertains to its disclosure obligations under the country’s existing Broadcasting Act.

Critics of the long-ruling People’s Action Party (PAP) said the website’s legal predicament once again displayed authorities’ intolerance for dissent.

With the mainstream media widely seen as pro-establishment, The Online Citizen over the years grew a reputation for offering independent commentary and reporting on local politics, with readership usually spiking during general elections.

The website could not be accessed on Thursday afternoon.

A message said the website was “using a security service to protect itself from online attacks”.

Its Facebook and Twitter pages were deactivated while its Instagram account was made private.

Singapore PM awarded US$156,000 in defamation suit against The Online Citizen

Terry Xu, the website’s chief editor, told This Week in Asia that he would be challenging the suspension of the website and its social media operations outside of Singapore. Within Singapore, he said he would abide by the website’s suspension but would challenge the order to suspend its social media channels, noting they were not part of the agreement signed with the authorities.

Xu, a long-time contributor to the website, has in recent years almost single-handedly led it.

In September, he lost a libel suit to Lee, and has been crowdfunding the S$210,000 (US$156,000) he owes the leader.

Xu is also facing trial for criminal defamation over a 2018 article that alleged Lee’s cabinet was corrupt.

The Infocomm Media Development Authority (IMDA), which acts as the country’s media regulator, had on Tuesday said it was suspending the website’s “class licence” to operate its website and social media accounts as it had not “fully complied” with the rules.

The regulator said The Online Citizen operated as an “internet content provider” in the republic, which meant it was obliged to be transparent about its sources of funding under the law. Any form of foreign funding is prohibited.

Singapore Prime Minister Lee Hsien Loong. Photo: AP

“This is to prevent such sites from being controlled by foreign actors, or coming under the influence of foreign entities or funding, and to ensure that there is no foreign influence in domestic politics,” said the IMDA.

The regulator said The Online Citizen had previously declared its funding sources in 2018, when it was first registered as an “internet content provider”.

But since 2019, the site had not fully complied with the obligation, adding that The Online Citizen failed to verify “a donor” and to clarify discrepancies in its foreign advertising revenue that year. Last year, it also failed to declare all of its funding sources despite reminders from the authority.

The IMDA said it was particularly concerned about the website’s subscription model, which it said allowed subscribers to commission articles in exchange for funding the portal. This practice could be an avenue for foreign influence, the agency said.

Apart from the Broadcasting Act, The Online Citizen is also governed by Singapore’s Political Donation Act – a piece of legislation that will soon be replaced by the new Foreign Interference (Countermeasures) law.

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As a result of its 2011 designation as a “political association” under the Political Donations Act, The Online Citizen is banned from accepting funding from abroad, and must declare the identities of its owners, editorial team and administrators.

Lim Tean, an opposition politician who is representing The Online Citizen, said there was no proof that the donor authorities referred to was foreign.

In a letter to the IMDA posted on his Facebook page, Lim said the authorities had “interfered” with the site’s business model.

“Your stance on this issue is highly questionable and suspect,” he said. “The position you have adopted amounts to nothing more than the harassment and intimidation of our client and their subscribers and would-be subscribers.”

The Online Citizen on Monday offered to declare that it was not receiving foreign funding but on the condition that the authority agree not to seek further clarifications concerning its subscription model and funding sources.

The IMDA rejected the offer and ordered its suspension on Tuesday, saying it might cancel the site’s “class licence” if it did not provide further information.

Lim had said that if the authorities suspended the licence, The Online Citizen would challenge the decision in a judicial review.