[Singapore] Media freedom: Limited by laws

The media and journalism industry in Singapore continues to be tightly controlled and regulated by the government, with the introduction of new laws and measures that carry significant implications for media freedom in the city-state.

 

Political developments

Singapore is currently undergoing a gradual period of political transition. Prime Minister Lee Hsien Loong has indicated that he will be stepping down from the premiership after the next general elections, due to be called by 2021. The new generation of People’s Action Party (PAP) leaders — also known as the “4G leadership” — will therefore step up to take up more responsibility and visibility in the running of the country.

Observers have commented that this ongoing transition — along with concern that the PAP’s stellar performance in the 2015 general elections was a fluke brought about by the passing of the much-revered Lee Kuan Yew — has led to the ruling party clamping down on its critics.

 

Interference

In January 2017, the Court of Appeal ruled in a split decision that the government cannot invoke an anti-harassment law, as the statute should only be confined in application to “natural persons.” The Ministry of Defence had tried to use the Protection from Harassment Act to require independent news website The Online Citizen (TOC) to remove statements made by inventor Ting Choon Meng regarding a dispute over patent rights. Following this decision, the Ministry of Law spokesperson said that the government would “consider what further steps it should take to correct the deliberate spreading of falsehoods.”

Donald Low, who was associate dean of the Lee Kuan Yew School of Public Policy at the time, posted two apologies on his Facebook page after Law and Home Affairs Minister K Shanmugam took issue with comments Low had made in response to an interview with Shanmugam.

On 21 July 2017, the Attorney-General Chambers (AGC) sent a warning letter to Li Shengwu, the nephew of Prime Minister Lee Hsien Loong, demanding that he delete a friends-only Facebook post in which he had commented that “the Singapore government is very litigious and has a pliant court system”. The AGC claimed that the post was an “egregious and baseless attack on the Singapore Judiciary.”

Li’s Facebook post had actually been a link to a Wall Street Journal article providing an overview of the family feud — largely between his father Lee Hsien Yang, aunt Lee Wei Ling and uncle Lee Hsien Loong — which had been playing out very publicly in Singapore. He refused to apologise for his comments, although he amended the original post to clarify his meaning.

Contempt of court proceedings have commenced against Li even while he is based in the United States, where he is a Junior Fellow at Harvard University. On 26 March 2018, the High Court dismissed his challenge of the court order obtained by the AGC to serve papers on him overseas.

In August 2017, a reporter with The Straits Times was interrogated and detained overnight after having approached various parties with questions regarding a government initiative related to public housing that had not yet been made public. A civil servant was later charged and convicted of having breached the Official Secrets Act. The reporter was given a stern warning.

Members of the media have also been caught up in investigations. In September 2017, the Singapore police opened an investigation into an alleged illegal assembly — a candlelight vigil for a Malaysian death row inmate who was about to be hanged. Individuals present at the vigil were called in for questioning. Among them were two people who had been there to film and report on the event: Terry Xu, chief editor of The Online Citizen, and independent documentary filmmaker Jason Soo.

Some critics have occasionally noticed that content that should not breach Facebook’s Community Standards have been removed. When opposition politician Lim Tean posted a 14-minute video on Facebook about his views on Singapore’s Budget 2018 on 21 February 2018, he was unable to access his Facebook page after the post went viral and had garnered more than 1,000 shares and thousands of views. His page was later restored without any explanation given.

Offline events can also be subjected to control. Cherian George, an academic who had formerly been a journalism lecturer in Singapore’s Nanyang Technological University until he was denied tenure in 2013, had to reschedule a public lecture originally planned for 9 March 2018 at the National University of Singapore, as official approval for the talk only came in at 3 p.m. on the day itself. Dr. George, now based in Hong Kong, was told that “all visitors to the Faculty of Arts & Social Sciences [FASS] are subject to screening.” The university later said that the delayed approval had been due to an oversight, and the lecture was delivered on 28 March.

 

Ownership and alternative media

On 6 February 2018, independent news website The Online Citizen was informed by the Registrar of Political Donations that it will be removed as a political association under the Political Donations Act. TOC had previously been gazetted by the Prime Minister’s Office as a political association.

TOC was then informed by the Info-communications Media Development Authority of Singapore (IMDA) that the website would be required to register under the Broadcasting (Class Licence) notification scheme. Under this licence, registered websites must undertake not to receive funding from foreign sources unless it is for bona fide commercial purposes and consent is granted.

Apart from such regulation, online news sites have struggled to find sustainable business models. In October 2017, independent website The Middle Ground (TMG) announced that they would be “winding down their publication” due the lack of funding that would sustain the overheads of a solid news editorial team.

 

Laws and policy

Multiple laws with serious implications for free speech and journalism have been passed in Parliament or come into force in the past year. Media freedom has been an unfortunate casualty in the ongoing clampdown against civil liberties and shrinking of civil society space in Singapore.

Following the government’s promise that anti-fake news laws would be introduced in 2018, the Singapore Parliament voted in January to convene a Select Committee on Deliberate Online Falsehoods to examine measures, including legislation, that should be taken in dealing with the issue of deliberate online falsehoods. Although the Committee has invited written feedback from the public and held over 50 hours of open hearings, members of Singapore civil society have criticised the process as falling short of the standards of a genuine consultation. The Select Committee will work on their report when Parliament reconvenes in May.

It is widely believed that the Select Committee on Deliberate Online Falsehoods will recommend the introduction of new legislation to tackle “fake news,” although the exact contours are not yet clear.

During an open hearing session at the Select Committee involving non-mainstream media journalists, an exchange between Committee member Edwin Tong and freelance journalist Kirsten Han ended with Tong quipping that Han had “not yet” been jailed or sued.

The Public Order and Safety (Special Powers) Bill was passed in Parliament in March 2018. The Bill repeals and replaces the Public Order (Preservation) Act, and confers special powers to law enforcement officials in the event of “serious incidents” such as terrorist attacks or “an act causing large-scale public disorder”. Illustrations of such incidents include large sit-down demonstrations that disrupt traffic and interferes with business activities.

The largest implications for media freedom with regard to this Bill, though, comes in the form of the “communications stop order”, which would allow the authorities to prevent the making, distributing or exhibiting of “relevant” films, pictures, texts or audio messages. This would apply to all parties within the affected area. Although the government has said that the media could still be allowed into the area to report on the incident for later broadcast and that individuals would not be affected if they were trying to submit information to the authorities, this is not explicitly stated in the Bill.

The Administration of Justice (Protection) Bill was passed in Parliament in August 2016, and came into force as the Administration of Justice (Protection) Act on 1 October 2017. The statute codifies contempt of court offences in Singapore, but exceeds previous precedent by stipulating a lower legal test for the offence of scandalising the judiciary as well as setting out harsher penalties. The law also applies for comments made outside of Singapore, as long as the comment is accessible by one member of the Singapore public. The Singapore government, however, is still free to comment on ongoing cases if they feel that it is in the public interest to do so.

Public feedback was solicited for the Films (Amendment) Bill at the end of 2017. The amendments prompted a position paper from Singapore’s film community, taking issue with changes such as the enhancement of investigation and enforcement powers of IMDA officers — the changes allow any IMDA officer the power conduct search and seizure, including breaking open doors or windows, without a warrant to investigate suspected breaches of the Films Act. The importing, making/reproducing, distribution or exhibition of “party political films” continues to be outlawed. The Bill also states that the Minister for Communication and Information will have sole discretion over appeals for films that have been refused classification by the IMDA on grounds of national security. A recent example of a film that had been refused classification on national security grounds is Tan Pin Pin’s documentary “To Singapore, With Love” which features Singapore’s political exiles — an appeal against IMDA’s refused to classify the film failed in 2014. The Films (Amendment) Bill was passed in Parliament in March 2018.

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