SINGAPORE (AP) -- About 1,000 Singaporeans rallied Saturday to protest a new government policy that requires some news websites to obtain licenses and possibly remove offensive content.
The policy that took effect this month has triggered criticism that authorities in this Southeast Asian city-state are trying to enforce online media censorship. Newspapers and television have long been tightly supervised in Singapore, and officials maintain the website policy is not meant to muzzle freedom of expression.
Websites that report regularly on Singaporean news and attract at least 50,000 visitors a month are now required to obtain annual licenses. They must remove any content considered objectionable by the government within 24 hours of notification.
A crowd that gathered at the Speakers' Corner free speech area of a Singapore park listened to bloggers and other speakers denounce the regulation. One man held a poster that read, "Internet censorship: Worst idea ever," while many booed when the names of government officials were spoken.
"This is definitely an attempt at censorship and it's quite plain to see that this regulation is not in the interests of anyone but the government," said blogger Ravi Philemon.
The rally's chief organizer, Howard Lee, said the demonstrators hope to draw attention to a petition that has more than 4,000 signatures demanding the withdrawal of the policy.
The rule affects 10 websites so far, including Yahoo! News in Singapore. To receive a license, a website has to post a "performance bond" of 50,000 Singapore dollars ($39,400).
Communications and Information Minister Yaacob Ibrahim has defended the policy, assuring the online community that personal blogs and many news commentary websites will not be affected. The websites that need to obtain licenses will "have to conform to certain minimum standards as far as we are concerned, and we think it's not as onerous as what's been made up by some people online," Yaacob said earlier this week.
Yahoo's Singapore arm has said it is abiding by the new requirement. Its country manager, Alan Soon, added in a statement that it was important that "regulations and guidelines remain meaningful and do not become a tool that restricts freedom of expression and genuine debate."
Singapore's Media Development Authority has said it will impose financial penalties or suspend the licenses of websites that violate the conditions.
About 150 operators of Singaporean blogs and other websites participated in a 24-hour display of dissent earlier this week by replacing their pages with black screens featuring the slogan "(hash)FreeMyInternet."
Human Rights Watch said in a statement Friday the new requirement "casts a chill over the city-state's robust and free-wheeling online communities, and will clearly limit Singaporeans' access to independent media."
"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," said Cynthia Wong, a senior Internet researcher at Human Rights Watch.
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