Historic elections inspire hope for freer expression

[Singapore country report to SEAPA’s 2012 Press Freedom Report, Online media is the space to watch]

The year 2011 marked a political milestone for Singapore with the opposition political party winning their most number of seats in a parliament election since independence. The opposition Workers’ Party won 6 out of the 87 seats it contested in the May elections, which were characterised by the active role played by online social networking sites, putting pressure on mainstream media to give more space to opposition candidates in their news reports.

Its loss of six seats is, to some extent, indicative of growing public resentment against the ruling People’s Action Party (PAP), which still has more than a two-thirds majority in Parliament. Combined with new forms of media consumption and production, this may well signal an irreversible trend towards opening up of spaces for free expression. Nevertheless, it will not be an untroubled process, as was evident from numerous attempts by the state throughout the year to silence dissenting voices.

Historic election for the opposition

The run up to the 2011 general elections saw continued government use of legal restrictions on freedom of expression as a tool to silence and intimidate opponents. In January, Dr Chee Soon Juan, leader of the Singapore Democratic Party (SDP) was convicted on four counts of speaking in public without a permit and ordered to pay a penalty of USD16,000. Five years earlier, the SDP leader and his political activist sister Chee Siok Chin [S1] had been found guilty of defaming former Prime Minister Lee Kuan Yew and his son, current Prime Minister Lee Hsien Loong. Ordered to pay over USD450,000 in damages, the Chees went bankrupt and were barred from holding office and leaving the city-state.

As in previous elections, the 2011 campaign was restricted to just nine days with the government announcing the election date only 18 days in advance. Prime Minister Lee also instituted a 24-hour “cooling-off” period before polling day, banning all political speech except supposedly independent “news” from state-controlled media and pre-approved party broadcasts. The Parliamentary Elections Act and Presidential Elections Act were amended in April 2010 while the Parliamentary Elections (Advertising) Regulations were updated ahead of the 2011 elections to control Internet use for campaigning.

A prominent casualty of the new regulations was Temasek Review founder, Dr Joseph Ong who was arrested in September for conducting an online ‘exit poll’ via Facebook Questions ahead of the May 2011 elections. The amended regulations to the Parliamentary Elections Act make it an offence to publish opinion polls during an election and exit polls before result are declared, with a maximum penalty of nearly USD1,200 and/or 12 months imprisonment. The investigation, which is still continuing, is another example of government use of the judiciary as a weapon against political opponents.

Media analysis of mainstream media election coverage, conducted by Maruah, the Singapore focal point for the Working Group for an ASEAN Human Rights Mechanism, found PAP receiving significantly more coverage than opposition parties, and portrayed in a vastly more positive light.

A positive development during the election campaign was state-owned broadcaster Mediacorp holding a TV forum with both government and opposition representatives participating. Although half of the airtime was allotted to the ruling party’s speakers and Dr Chee Soon Juan was barred from taking part due to his financial status, the broadcast forum was unprecedented for Singapore. Another first for Singapore were the stadium election rallies organized by the Worker’s Party and attended by tens of thousands of people.

The 2011 general election saw a weakening of the ruling party’s electoral dominance, with its share of the vote down to 60.1% from 67% in the previous election, giving it 81 of 87 parliamentary seats, while the Worker’s Party gained the rest: the best opposition result since independence.

Self-censorship

There was new evidence of self-censorship which systematically compromises the integrity of the state-controlled media in Singapore. According to a 2009 US State Department cable released by Wikileaks in September 2011, reporters “are eager to produce more investigative and critical reporting, but they are stifled by editors who have been groomed to toe the party line.” The cable quoted  a senior Straits Times bureau chief who described this “growing disconnect” while also mentioning editors’ compliance with the wishes of government ministers who “routinely call Straits Times editors to ensure that media coverage of an issue comes out the way they want it.”

Noting growing dissatisfaction of young people with government-defined limits to freedom of expression, the cable concluded that this most likely reflected “this generation’s rising expectations.” This has led many young journalists to seek employment outside the country rather than trying to change the status quo.

Criminalising expression

Singapore’s press censors are equally harsh with foreign critics. Alan Shadrake, British author of Once a Jolly Hangman: Singapore’s Justice in the Dock, served his prison sentence of six weeks beginning in May after a publicity visit to Singapore in late 2010. Any examination of judicial independence is considered taboo in the city-state; unsurprisingly, Shadrake’s sentence for contempt of court was the harshest ever imposed on a foreigner. The author was also forced to serve an extra two weeks in lieu of the USD15,000 fine for contempt of court.

Although High Court Justice Quentin Loh called the book’s veracity into question while announcing the sentence, saying that it contained a “selective background of truths and half-truths, and sometimes outright falsehoods”, the book has still not been banned. However, copies remain scarce and, in January, three members of the group Singapore For Democracy were questioned on possible charges of distributing defamatory material after selling a small number of copies of the book.

The judiciary has a history of imposing harsh penalties on international publications, which make critical comments on political events  within the city-state. In 2009, Far Eastern Economic Review lost a prolonged court battle against defamation charges and was forced to pay over USD315,000 to Prime Minister Lee Hsien Loong and his father, former premier Lee Kuan Yew. The judiciary’s routine imposition of harsh financial penalties on the press has been an effective tool to silence even the most reputable international media outlets.

Controlling online expression

The crucial issue in 2011, both for the public and the ruling party, was the increasing use of online space for freedom of expression. Singapore’s high Internet penetration rate makes online media readily accessible and the government has so far refrained from overt online political censorship. However, the heavy financial penalties invariably imposed on critics of the government, combined with the lack of domestic sponsors, make it difficult for online news sites to be commercially viable.

In January, popular socio-political blog site The Online Citizen (TOC) was gazetted and forcibly required to be listed as a political organization after it organized a public forum featuring leaders of opposition parties. Government statements said TOC “has the potential to influence the opinions of its readership and shape political outcomes in Singapore”, and it was necessary to keep foreign influences out of national politics.

Under the Broadcasting Act, websites found by authorities to be propagating political or religious issues relating to Singapore are required to be registered as political organizations. Its registration as a political organization bars TOC from receiving foreign funds or allowing foreign citizens to participate in its events. While the government maintains that registration “will not hinder its existing activities, nor impede its freedom of expression”, no website has been required to register as a political organization since 2001. Moreover, the Political Donations Act requires a registered website to list its domestic sources of funding – a potentially crippling blow in a country where dissent results in political and economic marginalization.

In November 2010, civil society group Maruah was required to register as a political association rather than as a society. Before its registration as a political body cut it off from foreign funding, the group had been active in representing Singapore civil society in engagingthe ASEAN human rights body.

In July, the over seven-year-old popular political website Temasek Review, shut down, citing funding concerns. With over a million unique online visitors from Singapore, Temasek Review was an alternative and critical voice in the otherwise state-controlled media landscape.  It cited difficulty attracting contributors as part of the factors forcing its closure. Although Temasak Review maintained publicly that government influence was not the main cause of its demise, it admitted the impact of government and mainstream media pressure. The website restarted in December under the name TR Emeritus.

In May, Singaporean authorities arrested a 24-year-old man after he allegedly posted news on an internet forum of a fighter jet crash resulting in several casualties. In a statement, police said he was being investigated under Section 45 of the Telecommunications Act, which makes transmitting false or fabricated messages punishable with a fine or imprisonment of up to three years.

In his National Day Rally address, Prime Minister Lee Hsien Loong denigrated online media for its unreliability and lack of balanced reporting and said it “lends itself to many negative views and ridiculous untruths.” Government representatives have described the online media environment as the “wild west” and a “cowboy town”.

Internet service providers (ISPs) are required to register and comply with the Media Development Authority’s (MDA) Internet Code of Practice. The MDA can order ISPs to block any website it considers a threat to public security, national defense, racial and religious harmony or public morals. Online media, like mainstream, must walk the fine line between self-censorship and overt criticism of the government.

More significantly, the Ministry of Information, Communications and the Arts (MICA) called this year for the introduction of a ‘code of conduct’ to regulate the boundaries of online speech. The move follows police investigation of several bloggers for allegedly posting racially and religiously offensive comments. An editorial in the Straits Times on 1 December titled ‘Hate Speech is Not Free Speech’ declared that the new code “is necessary to plug the gap between two existing safeguards of legal sanctions and self-regulation”. It is still unclear if the policy would be non-binding or, in fact, add penalties to existing laws.

Online media provides an alternative, complementary forum

The increasing popularity of social and political blogs like Talking Cock and The Online Citizen are indicative of public demand for an open and democratic forum for discussion. There has been a flourishing of alternative online sites for comment and debate with Singapore Recalcitrant, Singapore Daily, Singapore Notes and Yawning Bread among the most noteworthy. It has been suggested that the impact of this growing public awareness was clearly evident in the 2011 election result and the marked decline in the ruling party’s popularity. Government officials have accepted that the increasing popularity of online media can only be attributed to lack of public faith in mainstream, government-controlled news sources.

An October 2011 report by the Institute of Policy Studies, a think tank at the National University of Singapore (NUS) found that online media complemented rather than supplanted traditional sources of information. In the lead up to the election, 41.1% of 2,000 voters surveyed said they accessed news via online media, while 86.3% were users of offline media. Dr Cherian George, of the Wee Kim Wee School of Communication and Information, found that the main sources of online media worked towards “raising the level of political maturity of Singaporeans” and saw themselves as a counterweight to the mainstream media in creating a more balanced media system.

Nanny state

Freedom of expression remains restricted regarding officially taboo subjects, most notably homosexuality. In March, the High Court dismissed an appeal for a constitutional challenge to a conviction in 2010 under Section 377A of the Penal Code which makes “gross indecency” between two men, an offence punishable by up to two years imprisonment. The conviction followed a public statement in 2007 by Prime Minister Lee Hsien Loong that “the government does not act as moral policemen. And we do not proactively enforce section 377A”.

In June, the Media Development Authority banned the video game “Mass Effect”, which includes scenes of kissing between human and alien female characters, for containing inappropriate content.

In March, an installation in the Singapore Art museum by British artist Simon Fujiwara had some of its content, which included images from gay pornographic magazines, removed without the artist’s permission. The Straits Times later quoted a lawyer as saying that the material could potentially fall under the Undesirable Publications Act, which carries a maximum sentence of two years imprisonment and a fine of just under USD8,000.

In February, the Board of Film Censors restricted the release of Oscar-nominated film “The Kids are Alright”, rating it R21 and allowing only one print of the film. In a statement, the board said that the film violated guidelines by “normalising a homosexual family unit”.

No freedom to talk about lack of freedom

In a country where freedom of expression is systematically controlled, public assembly is the only way the public can exercise its right to speak. On 9 October, nearly 20 local activists gathered at Speakers’ Corner to commemorate “World Day Against the Death Penalty” and to call for the abolition of Singapore’s capital punishment laws. However, in December, police rejected an application by Singaporeans for Democracy to hold an anti-racism rally at Speakers’ Corner but did not specify a reason for the denial of permission.

Authorities have clamped down on indoor public gatherings. In October, the Singapore Democratic Party came under police investigation after it organized a public forum attended by about 150 people and joined by former Internal Security Act (ISA) detainees Francis Seow and Tang Fong Har via teleconference. A police statement described the duo, living abroad, as “fugitives from justice” and “foreign nationals”.

In September, a private political forum organised by Singaporeans For Democracy faced police investigation under the Public Order Act. The forum featured two opposition members of Parliament from Cambodia and Malaysia as well as ex-ISA detainee Vincent Cheng and blogger Alex Au. The police probe questioned whether inviting participants via Facebook was a private or public activity as the Act bars the holding of public events without a permit.

Earlier, in July, police questioned the person who organised a gathering of 120 people at Speaker’s Corner in solidarity with Malaysia’s Bersih protests. In a statement, police said they take a “serious view of foreigners who import their domestic political conflicts into Singapore, and of foreigners who use Singapore as a stage for such political agitation.”

International criticism

The Singapore government continued to turn a blind eye to international criticism of its tight control on free expression and the severe limitations on civil and political rights in the country.

Participating in the Universal Periodic Review, a United Nations-led peer review process on human rights, Singapore emphasised its commitment to improving the social and economic well-being of its people, but rejected recommendations to ensure the right to freedom of expression, assembly or association. The government maintained that vocal criticism of Singapore’s media, civil and political rights record by foreign countries and civil rights organisations was “based on incorrect assumptions or premises.”

In February, the International Bar Association criticised Singapore’s so-called “Asian Values” interpretation of human rights which values economic and social rights at the expense of civil and political rights. Quoting the Singapore Institute of International Affairs, which states that “civil and political liberties must be temporarily suspended so as to not inhibit the government’s delivery of economic and social necessities and so as to not threaten or destroy future development plans”, the International Bar Association pointed out that life expectancy and median income levels in Singapore are among the highest in the world, rendering the government’s liberty-developmenttrade-off  argument “completely untenable”. Earlier, in 2010, United Nations Secretary-General Ban Ki Moon had also condemned subjective interpretations of human rights, saying “let there be no confusion: where there is tension between cultural attitudes and universal human rights, universal human rights must carry the day.”

In response to Malaysian Prime Minister Najib Razak’s declaration of plans to repeal the Internal Security Act and amend the press law in his country – colonial era legislation shared by the two countries – the Singapore government made a robust defense of its use of the law, saying that “no person has ever been detained only for their political beliefs.” It added that the Newspaper and Printing Presses Act was essential to ensure that the media play “a responsible role and that publishers are accountable for the content they print.”

Outlook

The elections and the active online community signal growing and resilient awareness of the benefits of a free media and the right to voice dissenting opinions. The result of the general elections has offered hope that the public is more than ready to exercise its right to freedom of expression.

Online freedom issues – ranging from scope of subjects for discussion to ethics and defamation – will be the focus of a symposium titled “Social media and incitement to hatred” to be hosted by civil society groups in the island state and attended by the UN Special Rapporteur on the Promotion of Freedom of Expression and Opinion.