Death by Bureaucracy: Popular News Site in Singapore Closes Under Weight of Official Rules

I am in Singapore at the moment, by chance witnessing the death and dismemberment of a popular online news outlet.

I have seen scant outside coverage of this rather strange, censorious saga, so I’m writing a tiny bit about it in hopes of helping spread the word. Actually, I want to help spread two words: Kitchen Closed.

That is the announcement now plastered boldly across the homepage of what used to be known as Breakfast Network.

World of Shadows

Journalism is a tricky pursuit in Singapore. As a Fulbright researcher and visiting journalism professor here a few years back, I saw firsthand the city-state’s paradoxical existence, acting according to one researcher as both “a regional media center and a site of media repression.”

In respect to the latter, a journalism educator here once described the reporting roadblocks to me as a “world of shadows.” It is part of what many Singaporean student and professional journalists refer to loosely as legal, political and economic forces in the country with the authority to control or punish individuals who criticize the powers-that-be, upend the status quo or cause controversies of any kind.

Some of these shadows are real and others undoubtedly imagined. But either way, they lead to what Singaporeans call OB (out-of-bounds) markers – limits on how much to rant, how far to dig, how boldly to challenge, how deeply to report.

It was in this world that veteran Singaporean journalist Bertha Henson launched Breakfast Network, less than a year after leaving her high-level editor job at The Straits Times, Singapore’s leading daily newspaper. BN began in February 2013 as a media criticism blog, a digital home for Henson’s musings on what impressed, amused and dismayed her within the Singapore press scene she had long toiled within.

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It grew over time into a more wide-ranging news and views site, featuring the perspectives and original reporting of other Singaporeans. These included Henson’s students at the National University of Singapore (NUS), where she serves as a journalist-in-residence.

Along with an increase in contributors (one paid full-time staffer and the rest “citizen volunteers”), Breakfast Network enjoyed a rapid uptick in web traffic and general buzz. Henson even decided to start a related company, Breakfast Network Pte Ltd (BNPL).

As she explained in a post on Yahoo! News Singapore that originally appeared on Breakfast Network:

“The site was set up because there were like-minded individuals who wanted to report and write and we thought, what the heck, why not set up something cheap? … What we didn’t reckon on was that the site would gain fans so quickly, so much so we had to keep buying more server space. And despite being a pro bono site, there were readers who wanted more and more. So, I thought why not do the site ‘properly,’ set up a legal entity to do business and pay for a more-or-less proper newsroom operation?”

Soon after, the Singapore government stepped in.

To read the rest of my Poynter piece, click here or on the screenshot below.

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