19 Feb 2006

Bloggers, podcasts online may be subject to Parliamentary Elections Act

By Farah Abdul Rahim, Channel NewsAsia
SINGAPORE : Come election time, bloggers and podcasts online may be subject to the Parliamentary Elections Act.

The Media Development Authority has reminded Internet content providers to comply with Singapore's laws, including those relating to political content.

It says changes to the law, if necessary, will be announced at an appropriate time.

In the previous election in 2001, cyberspace was smaller and less active, and so was the Internet community. Podcasts and blogs were not common terms at that time, but things have changed over the past five years.

Online political discussions have become more common, especially with the General Election due by the middle of next year.

One anonymous blogger called "SGRally" has even set up a website and asks for volunteers to record rally speeches and post them online.

"That site, whoever set it up, is trying to push the boundaries, the envelope a little bit by making people think about what these definitions are. It could present a problem, it could not. We will see how it pans out, and what type of videos that people actually end up sending in," said blogger Benjamin Lee, who is better known as 'Mr Miyagi'.

But is this blog allowed under the Parliamentary Elections Act?

"They can say that it contravenes the law in the sense that rallies are meant to persuade voters towards the speakers' cause. The aim is to influence people. So under existing regulations, it would seem as if it is covered," said Tan Tarn How, research fellow at IPS (Institute of Policy Studies, Singapore).

"There are several questions in this - first of all, whether people would really bother to put up the video tapes, transcripts of the speeches and rallies. Secondly, whether people would bother to go download the rallies and speeches."

Many also argue that while the Internet's influence is increasing, most Singaporeans will not be heading online.

"I don't think that the audience is very big for this kind of material, (though) they have been doing it for years. In the last GE, there were a lot of materials but not many went to the SDP and WP websites to download materials," said Tan.

"People are just not interested enough to put in the effort to look for information. Unless it's cast in a form that is closer to entertainment than politics."

Bloggers agree that not many out there want to listen to political podcasts.

"I'm sure there is room for listening to political podcasts. The only problem is that a lot of the stuff out there is dry and boring. So you are basically asking the man on the street, for 20 mins or half an hour of his time to tune into your programme. But if it's not interesting, I won't waste my time," said Lee.

But bloggers also point out that current laws aren't clear enough.

"Some things need to be defined, to make it clearer. There are a lot of laws covering online offline activities that didn't seem inadequate till the advent of blogging and podcasting. Right now, you have bloggers and podcasters wondering how often they will fall foul of the law," said Lee.

There are still many unanswered questions - like how to get bloggers to take responsibility for their actions especially with anonymous postings or if the website is hosted out of Singapore.

So it remains to be seen whether the law will change before the next General Election. But one thing's for sure, political watchers say it's still the heartlanders who will decide the outcome of the next election, not the online community.

- CNA /ls

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