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Singapore: More than 1,000 Singaporeans gathered at a downtown park to protest a regulation requiring websites that regularly publish news on the city state to be licensed.

The demonstration organized by representatives of social and political websites was held today at Speakers’ Corner at Hong Lim Park, at the edge of the financial district. “About 1,450 people have turned up so far," said Howard Lee, deputy chief editor of the Online Citizen, a Singapore social and political blog, and one of the organizers. Some waved placards calling on the government not to “tell me what to read", while another said “our silence is not for sale".

The Southeast Asian nation has seen at least two protests against government policies this year. The regulation introduced 1 June requiring news sites get a licence has drawn criticism from opposition groups, while the government has said the rule doesn’t limit individuals’ freedom of expression online.

“Our purpose today is simply to ask the government to withdraw the Internet regulation they announced 11 days ago," said Andrew Loh, editor of publichouse.sg, the first speaker at the event. “Citizen journalism has a place in Singapore."

More than 150 Singapore websites and blogs blacked out their content in protest against the licensing rules, the Straits Times reported on Friday. Some sites replaced their home pages with a black screen saying “Free My Internet"; others included information about today’s protest.

The new rules undercut Singapore’s status as a financial hub, Human Rights Watch (HRW) said, urging the city to withdraw regulations it says discourage independent comment.

“The regulations cast a chill over the city’s robust and free-wheeling online communities and limit Singaporeans’ access to independent media," Cynthia Wong, senior Internet researcher at the New York-based HRW, said in an emailed statement yesterday.

Singapore dropped 14 places in a 2013 press-freedom index published by “Reporters Without Borders", ranking 149th out of 179 countries. It’s ranked one spot behind Russia, and just ahead of Iraq and Myanmar.

Today’s demonstration is the third incident where Singaporeans expressed unhappiness against government policies this year. Thousands of Singaporeans demonstrated in February and May against a government plan to increase the island’s population through immigration.

“The key to this is to make our voices heard to scrap this ruling, which goes against the right to information," Lee said. “Through this gathering today, we also want to let people know how these regulations are going to affect them."

Singapore’s Media Development Authority said last month certain websites must get a licence and pay a S$50,000 ($40,035) bond to be forfeited upon publication of prohibited content such as that which undermines racial or religious harmony. Yahoo! Inc.’s Singapore news website is among an initial list of 10 that will be subject to the rules.

“Further regulation is redundant," Alan Soon, Yahoo’s Singapore country manager and managing editor for Southeast Asia, said on the company’s news site for the city. “And, as the past few days have shown, it creates confusion and unsettles both users as well as the media industry that Singapore has tried so hard to cultivate."

News sites must have individual licences if they post an average of at least one weekly article on the island’s news and current affairs over a period of two months, and have at least 50,000 unique visitors from Singapore each month over that period, according to MDA.

The authority said operators of news sites are expected to comply within 24 hours with the government agency’s directions to remove content that is found to be in breach of standards.

Other sites on the list include those run by Singapore Press Holdings Ltd and MediaCorp Pte, the country’s two biggest media companies. Singapore Press chairman Lee Boon Yang was a former information minister, while MediaCorp is owned by Temasek Holdings Pte, the state-owned investment company.


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