By Eveline Danubrata
SINGAPORE (Reuters) - Human Rights Watch said on Friday that Singapore is undercutting its status as a financial center by expanding media censorship to the web and urged the city-state's government to withdraw the new licensing requirement for online news sites.
Singapore is a major banking and trading hub and many companies have set up their regional headquarters in the city-state because of its relatively low corporate tax rate, strong infrastructure and ease of travel in Southeast Asia.
Singapore's licensing scheme casts a chill over its "robust and free-wheeling" online communities and will limit Singaporeans' access to independent media, said Cynthia Wong, senior Internet researcher at Human Rights Watch.
"Websites will be forced into the role of private censors on behalf of the government," Wong said. "Singapore is placing its status as a world-class financial center at clear risk by extending its record of draconian media censorship to the digital world."
Websites that regularly report on Singapore will have to get a license from June 1, putting them on par with newspapers and television news outlets, the Media Development Authority (MDA) said last week.
The MDA identified sg.news.yahoo.com, a service run by Internet giant Yahoo! Inc, as among 10 sites that would be affected by the new requirement, based on criteria such as having 50,000 unique visitors from Singapore a month over a period of two months.
Conditions for the sites that require individual licenses, which have to be reviewed annually, include a performance bond of S$50,000 ($39,700) and a requirement that objectionable content be removed within 24 hours when directed by the MDA.
The MDA was not immediately available for comment on the Human Rights Watch statement.
A government minister was quoted by the local media as saying earlier this week that the new licensing requirement for news website is not a fundamental shift in policy.
"Like our regulations in the physical world, our regulations for the online space are meant to ensure that people are responsible for their actions, which have real-world consequences," Singapore's Straits Times quoted Minister for Communications and Information Yaacob Ibrahim as saying.
The move has drawn strong criticism from various bloggers and socio-political websites like The Online Citizen.
A group called "Free My Internet" organized a black-out on Thursday to push for a withdrawal of the licensing scheme. They will also hold a protest at Singapore's Hong Lim Park or the city-state's version of London's Hyde Park corner on Saturday.
Even before the new licensing scheme, Yahoo! News was already bound to comply with the MDA's Internet Code of Practice, which complements its internal editorial policies, said Alan Soon, Yahoo's country manager for Singapore and managing editor for Southeast Asia.
"Further regulation is redundant. 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," he said in a statement.
Reporters Without Borders, in its latest report, ranked Singapore 149th out of 179 countries in terms of press freedom, down 14 places from 2012 and below many of its neighbors.
(Reporting by Eveline Danubrata; Editing by Michael Perry)