I was at Speakers' Corner on Saturday, 8 June 2013. It was a remarkable job by the #FreeMyInternet chaps. They managed to get themselves organized within a short time frame and got the message out to enough people to gather a decent crowd on Saturday.
I know that the #FreeMyInternet movement made it very clear that their primary goal for the time being is the revocation of the MDA's latest licensing rules. But, I am sure their ultimate desire is also to see greater freedom in terms of the traditional media as well.
There is one thing that we need to be very clear about. The current licensing rules are set out in the Broadcasting (Class Licence) (Amendment) Notification 2013. By virtue of this notification, MDA can, at its discretion, remove any website from the Class Licence and require it to obtain a specific licence. The problem is not really a result of this subsidiary legislation. The problem is in the parent Act of Parliament itself. Parliament has drawn up a provision that is so broad that it has authorised lawlessness.
Under Section 8(2) of the Broadcasting Act,
"Every broadcasting licence, other than a class licence, granted by the Authority shall be in such form and for such period and may contain such terms and conditions as the Authority may determine"
This is equivalent to saying that the licence will be in 'x' form, for 'y' period and contain 'w' terms, where x, y and w will be determined by MDA.
As for Class licenses, section 9 deals states the following:
9(1) The Authority may, by notification published in the Gazette, determine a class licence, being a broadcasting licence, for the provision of such subscription broadcasting services and other licensable broadcasting services as the Authority may specify.
(2) The Authority may include in a class licence such conditions as it thinks fit.
MDA may issue any form of class licence and impose any conditions.
Sometimes when a legislative provision is vague and open to interpretation and there exists a danger that it could be interpreted too broadly, we might caricature that legislation by stating that Parliament could have simply given unfettered discretion to a public body to do as it pleases. The Broadcasting Act has been drafted in such a manner that it literally gives that unfettered power to the MDA.
In Chng Suan Tze v Minister of Home Affairs (1988), Wee CJ stated:
"All power has legal limits and the rule of law demands that the courts should be able to examine the exercise of discretionary power. If therefore the executive in exercising its discretion under an Act of Parliament has exceeded the four corners within which Parliament has decided it can exercise its discretion, such an exercise of discretion would be ultra vires the Act and a court of law must be able to hold it to be so."
For Parliament to make a law stating that the Executive arm of government may do as it pleases is as good as signing off on a blank cheque. The Broadcasting Act is MDA's blank cheque. It is the hallmark of the rule of law that a government must be subject to and act in accordance with the law. But, the Broadcasting Act makes a mockery of this principle. MDA can easily impose any kind of licensing conditions and still claim that it is acting in accordance with the law. A law that facilitates absolute discretion is only a law in form. It fails to fulfill its true role in restraining the arbitrary exercise of power.
In a kingdom, when a king wields absolute power and is not restrained in any way by the law we say that the king is the law, meaning that there is no rule of law in such a state. What if the king decides to subject himself to the law and he forms a Parliament that would make the law and that Parliament makes a law stating that the King may do as he pleases? Would we say that there is the rule of law in such a state? We wouldn't.
The Broadcasting Act must not facilitate discretion and the arbitrary exercise of power. It must restrict the MDA's power.