Singapore: Three tiers of censorship

Posted by Martyn See under Human Rights Watch on 29 November 2009

In Singapore, every time politically sensitive subjects are raised in public, there is great uneasiness that one's phone is being tapped, emails monitored, movements and speech recorded. This climate of political fear creates a culture of self - censorship, even on the internet.

A symposium organised by regional NGO Forum Asia entitled 'Freedom of Opinion and Expression in Cyberspace' was held in Seoul, Republic of Korea, from the 13th to 15th October 2009.

Three human rights defenders from South-east Asia were present to highlight their respective countries' situation. They were Ms Chiranuch Premchaiporn, the executive director of Thai website Prachatai, Mr K Kabilan, chief editior of Malaysiakini and Singapore's Mr Martyn See.

Among those in attendance were Mr Frank La Rue, United Nations' Special Rapporteur for the promotion and protection of the right to freedom of opinion and expression, representatives from Amnesty International and Reporters Without Borders, and local NGO leaders, lawyers, activists, academics, students and the media.

The 3 tiers of censorship in Singapore

The Singapore Government adopts a two-faced approach to civil and political liberties, no less encapsulated in Article 14 of the Singapore Constitution, which states that every citizen has the right to freedom of speech, expression, association and peaceful assembly. These rights are then subjected to the next two clauses which states that Parliament may by law impose restrictions on these rights in the interest of national security, foreign relations, public order or morality.

Singapore has 84 Members of Parliament, 82 of whom are members of the ruling People's Action Party, which has governed the country since 1959.

There are three tiers of censorship in Singapore. The 1st tier are the legislations passed by Parliament which restricts freedom of expression. The 2nd tier of censorship are those imposed by government bodies which are authorized by law to draw up guidelines and policies pertaining to political expression. A key feature of this 2nd tier of censorship are the non-transparency and the nebulous nature of its implementation, which leads to a blurring of the the line of what is acceptable and non-acceptable speech. This in turn creates a climate where writers, bloggers, artists and politicians self-censor their speech in order that they do not overstep boundaries. This climate of self-censorship forms the 3rd tier of censorship in Singapore. 1st tier of censorship

What are some of the laws that restrict freedom of expression in Singapore?

Internal Security Act

The Internal Security Act give broad discretion to the Government to detain, without filing charges, anyone who is deemed to be a threat to national security. Detainees under the ISA have no recourse to the normal judicial system. The longest-held prisoner is Chia Thye Poh. He was a opposition Member of Parliament who was arrested and detained in 1966 and granted unconditional release in 1998, capping a 32 year incarceration. Suspicion of torture including interrogation under freezing air-conditioned rooms, sleep deprivation, solitary confinement and physical assaults still persists to this day. The government has repeatedly denied these charges, but acknowledged that "psychological pressure" is used on detainees. Human rights groups have been denied permission to visit detainees. At the end 2008, it ws reported that 22 detainees remain under detention. The Government says they are held for terrorist-linked activities. Also, under the ISA, the Government may place restrictions on publications that incite violence, civil disobedience, threaten national interests, national security and public order. Residents in Singapore generally believe that the secret police, the Internal Security Department, monitors political speech and activity.

Newspaper and Printing Presses Act

All publications in Singapore require a Government license. Under the the Newspaper and Printing Presses Act, the Minister has the discretion to grant and withdraw press licenses as he deems fit. Appointments and dismissal of shareholders and directors of newspaper companies are subjected to Government approval. Two companies, Singapore Press Holdings Limited (SPH) and MediaCorp, owned all nation-wide circulated newspapers, radio and TV stations. Many international newswire agencies and publications do operate out of Singapore. However, under the NPPA, the Government may limit the limit the circulation of foreign publication that it deems to be "interfering" in domestic politics. The Far Eastern Economic Review is currently banned in Singapore after it published an interview in 2006 with opposition politician Dr Chee Soon Juan. The importation and possession of FEER in Singapore is a criminal offence. Broadcasting Act

The Broadcasting Act authorizes the Media Development Authority to censor all broadcast media, internet sites, and all other media, including movies, videos, computer games and music. The Act also allows the minister of information to place restrictions on foreign broadcasters deemed to be "engaging" in domestic politics. The Government may also impose restrictions on the number of households receiving a broadcaster's programming, and a broadcaster may be fined up to $100,000 SGD for failing to comply.

Sedition Act

Another colonial-era law, the Sedition Act criminalizes any act, speech, words, publication or expression that incite disaffection against the Government or the administration of justice in Singapore, or to incite hatred amongst the citizens, or to create hostility between different races and classes in Singapore. It also allows the court to suspend any publication that is deemed to contain seditious content.

On October 7 of 2005, the Act was invoked for the first time in Singapore's history when two men were sentenced to jail terms for making racist comments on the internet. 27 year old Benjamin Koh Song Huat was convicted under two charges and jailed for one month while 25 year old Nicholas Lim Yew was given a nominal one day jail and fined a maximum $5000 SGD. Two weeks later, another blogger, a 17 year old student, pleaded guilty to making racist remarks on his blog and was sentenced to 24 months supervised probation.

In 2006, it was reported that a 21 year old blogger with the moniker "Char" was placed under police investigation for posting cartoons of Jesus Christ on the internet. On July 10 this year, 50 year old Ong Kian Cheong and his wife Dorothy Chan were sentenced to eight weeks jail under the Sedition Act for possessing and distributing anti-Muslim and anti-Catholic publication. They have withdrawn their appeals and are currently serving their sentences.

Civil and Criminal Defamation

Defamation and libel suits filed by Singapore's political leaders against their critics have been so successful that it's chilling effects upon political expression in Singapore is by far the most severe.

In 1999, ten members of a Tamil-language publication, including a Government minister, filed a petition to wind up the opposition Workers' Party after the Party failed to pay over $500,000 SGD in libel damages over an article published in the Party's newsletter. The Party did not collapsed, but its leader JB Jeyaretnam (JBJ) was declared bankrupt and barred from contesting in elections. JBJ was Singapore's most sued politician. Over the course of three decades, he has paid millions of dollars to Singapore's leaders in libel damages. He had lost his house, his job and parliamentary seat. After returning to the political scene in 2008 with the formation of a new party, he passed away in September the same year.

Another opposition politician, Dr Chee Soon Juan, has been twice bankrupted by the courts for failure to pay government leaders. His party, the Singapore Democratic Party, is currently facing closure after it was found guilty of defaming Prime Minister Lee Hsien Loong and Minister Mentor Lee Kuan Yew over an article published in an election campaign newsletter in 2006. The plaintiffs sought and were awarded aggravated damages after they pointed out that the offending article was also available on the internet, and thus increasing its damage to the Lees' reputation.

Local opposition politicians are not the only ones who have faced the brunt of defamation and libel suits. Foreign publications like The Economist, Newsweek, Business Week, Asian Wall Street Journal, International Herald Tribune, Bloomberg and Financial Times have been sued by Singapore officials or made to apologize and pay hefty fines. Last week, the Court of Appeal upheld a ruling that the Far Eastern Economic Review had defamed Lee Kuan Yew and his son Lee Hsien Loong in a 2008 article that featured an interview with opposition politician Dr Chee Soon Juan. Due to shut down its operations in December, the 63 year old magazine still carries the offending article on its website.

Aside from civil defamation, Section 499 of Penal Code states that whoever makes or publishes any imputation intended to harm the reputation of another shall be charged for criminal defamation. In 2002, internet activist Zulfikar Mohamad Shariff had his computer seized by the police for possible criminal defamation after an posting he made had criticized Lee Kuan Yew. Shortly thereafter, Zulfikar left for Australia and the case has not been followed through. Convictions of criminal defamation may result in prison terms of up to two years.

Often, the mere prospect of libel action is sufficient deterrent for most bloggers. In 2005, student blogger Chen Jiahao, under the online moniker of Acid Flask, posted a series of articles critical of A*Star, a government agency tasked to spearhead the development of the life sciences industry. It was met by a stream of emails from its chairman Philip Yeo who demanded that Chen delete all postings mentioning him and A*Star and threatened libel action if Chen did not comply. On 26 April 2005, Chen shut down his blog altogether and replaced it with a message of apology to Yeo. Other blogs who had reproduced the remarks also posted apologies or shut down out of fear of libel action.

Parliamentary Elections Act

Singapore does not have an independent elections commission. The Elections Department comes directly under the Prime Minister's office. The Parliamentary Elections Act gives the minister wide discretionary powers to regulate election advertising on the internet. During the General Elections in 2001, the Elections Department sent notices to local NGO Think Centre, the Singapore Democratic party (SDP) and Workers' Party to remove articles and links deemed to be unlawful. Government controls stepped up a notch in 2006 when a blanket ban on all political podcasts and videocasts was imposed during the General Elections. On April 25 2006, the SDP were warned that action would be taken against them if they did not remove podcasts from the party website. Within hours, the Party posted a notice on their website that the podcasts was suspended. The Act also requires that websites that "persistently promote political views"(Sadasivan, 4 April 2006) be required to be registered with the Government.

Miscellaneous Offences (Public Order and Nuisance ) Act

Under this Act, a police permit is required for any assembly or procession of 5 or more persons in any public space that are intended to demonstrate opposition to the views and actions of any person, to publicize a cause or campaign or to commemorate any event. Currently, there are four ongoing trials pertaining to the alleged violation of this Act, all of which involves members or supporters of the opposition SDP. Last week, in a rare judgment, District Judge John Ng acquitted five SDP activists for an illegal procession which was carried out in 2007. The convictions under this act carry a maximum fine of $10,000 SGD or six months prison terms.

Public Entertainment and Meetings Act

The Public Entertainment and Meetings Act states that all public entertainment, including political meetings and rallies, require a police permit. In practice, while exemptions are made for events featuring cultural, arts and entertainment, the police routinely rejects permit applications for outdoor political protests, demonstrations and assemblies. Opposition politician Chee Soon Juan has been charged numerous times for speaking in public without a licence : 20 days jail in 1999, $3000 SGD fine in July 2002, five weeks jail in October 2002 and five weeks jail in November of 2006. He is currently awaiting appeal on three other convictions and awaiting trial for four more counts for alleged violation of this Act.

Undesirable Publications Act

The Undesirable Publication Act states that any material, including publication, discs, tapes, photographs, paintings, graphics, sculpture or article, which has content that are likely to deprave or corrupt a person viewing or hearing them, will be deemed objectionable. The powers of the Act allows for arrest without warrant and the conviction carries a maximum fine of $10,000 SGD or two year prison sentence.

Films Act

Section 14 of the Films Act require that all films and videos be submitted to the Board of Film Censors for licensing. The Act makes no exception to video formats so it would include video images stored in mobile phones and videos produced for the internet. In practice, the authorities does not enforce this law strictly except when the films are screened to an audience in a public space. In a rare operation undertaken on May 17, 2008, officers from the police and censorship board turned up in force at the Peninula-Excelsior Hotel to disrupt a private premiere and seized a dvd copy of a film entitled One Nation Under Lee.

It's director Seelan Palay is currently undergoing police investigations for the screening of an unlicensed film.

Section 33 of the Films Act criminalizes the making, import, distribution and exhibition of any film that makes biased references to political persons or matter in Singapore. The convictions carry a maximum sentence of $100,000 SGD fine or a two year imprisonment. For 15 months between 2005 and 2006, I was placed under police investigation for making a film on opposition leader Chee Soon Juan, entitled Singapore Rebel. During that time, I was made to surrender all my tapes and even the camera to the police. Over three interrogation sessions, questions were asked about my blog, my source of funding, my meeting with opposition members, my interest in politics, my association with other political persons or groups. Meanwhile, the film was leaked onto the internet and was generating interests around the world. In August on 2006, the police dropped the investigation by issuing me a "stern warning" in lieu of prosecution. Just a month ago on Sept 11 2009, the ban on Singapore Rebel was lifted.

While undergoing investigations for the above, I made a second political film. Entitled Zahari's 17 Years, the film is a protracted interview with former political prisoner Said Zahari. On 10 April 2007, the Government issued a public statement stating that the film would be banned under Section 35 of the Films Act, which allows the Minister discretionary powers to ban any film which he deems to be against public interest. Again, I had to surrender my tapes to the authorities. But unlike the previous case, there was no police probe. Again, the video found its way on the internet. To date, there is no reported case of Government intervention to remove political videos uploaded on the internet.

Internet Freedom

Singapore has one of the highest internet penetration rates in the world at 66.8% and its broadband capacity covers 99% of the island. All Internet Service Providers (ISPs) are government-owned or government-linked and they are subjected to Media Development Authority's (MDA) Internet Code of Practice. The MDA is empowered to order service providers to block websites that are deemed to undermine public security, national defence, racial and religious harmony, or public morals. Although the MDA ordered ISPs to block 100 sites that the government considered pornographic, in general only a few websites are blocked. Sites that are blocked include a few pornographic URLs, an illegal drug site and a fanatical religious site. An Open Net Initiative study notes that Singapore's technical filtering system is among the most limited. However, the study concludes that while free speech in Singapore is less constrained than in China and Saudi Arabia, where there are significant internet filtering, Singapore imposes far more stringent constraints on its citizens' expression. 2nd tier of censorship

The 2nd tier of censorship involves a combination of rules and policies enacted by government bodies, particularly the Media Development Authority, and a general pervasive fear of being monitored by the authorities.

Indeed, the law permits Government monitoring of internet use. A range of laws, such as the Computer Misuse Act, grants the police broad powers to search any computer without a warrant. There is no general data protection or privacy law in Singapore. The US State Department Human Rights report states that "law enforcement agencies have extensive networks for gathering information and conducting surveillance and highly sophisticated capabilities to monitor telephone and other private conversations. It was believed that the authorities routinely monitored telephone conversations and the use of the Internet. It was widely believed that the authorities routinely conducted surveillance of some opposition politicians and other government critics." The Singapore Government has not refuted this allegation.

In May of 1999, after a law student complained to police that someone with an account in the Home Affairs Ministry had hacked into her computer, the Ministry disclosed that it had secretly scanned the computers more than 200,000 SingNet customers, ostensibly for viruses.

On Oct 1st 2009, the Government announced the setting up of the Singapore Infocomm Technology Security Authority (SITSA), an agency dedicated to counter 'external threats to national security vis-a-vis cyber-terrorism and cyber espionage.' This new unit will come under the authority of the Internal Security Department (ISD), known within the country as Singapore's very own version of the KGB.

The Media Development Authority The Media Development Authority (MDA) is a government body which has been authorized to regulate internet use. Although it publicly advocates the use of a "light-touch" approach to governing the internet, the body has wide ranging powers to draw up subsidiary legislations for internet use. For instance, under its Internet Code of Practice, MDA can direct any Internet Content Provider to remove any material deemed to be objectionable on grounds of public morality, public order, public security and national harmony. Under its Broadcasting (Class License) Notification, the following are required to register with the authority.

1. Internet Service Providers, including localised and non-localised Internet Service Resellers.
2. Political parties' websites.
3. Any website that propagates, promotes or discuss political or religious issues relating to Singapore.
4. Any website that provides online news for a subscription fee.

In August of 2001, just before the General Elections, political discussion website Sintercom came after pressure from the Government to register as a political site. Its webmaster Dr Tan Chong Kee said that registration would made the website vulnerable to libel suits and that the site would have to practise self-censorship as a result. Instead, he chose to close the site, which had operated for eight years prior to Government pressure.

Since 2001, there has been no reports of any websites that has come under the same scrutiny. But due to the uncertainty of when and how such a law will be enforced, most political blogs today are created under pseudonyms, as many are unsure if they will be targeted by Government authorities for registration, which requires the applicant to disclose personal details such as name of employer and salary. Two bloggers who did identified themselves came under under swift attack from the authorities.

Robert Ho

Robert Ho Chang is Singapore's leading cyber dissident. Since 2001, he has been arrested no less than on five occasions for articles posted on the internet.

During the General Elections in 2001, the 58 year former journalist posted an article on two websites entitled "Break the law and get away with it, like your PAP leaders," urging opposition candidates to enter polling stations, an act deemed illegal by law even though PAP candidates committed the same act in the previous elections of 1997. A month later after the General Elections, on 16th of November 2001, eight police officers entered his home and carted away his computer, CD ROMs, modem and cables. Next day, he was produced in court and charged for "an attempt to incite disobedience to the law," marking Singapore's first-ever prosecution of online speech. Ho was then taken to the Institute of Mental Health for "psychiatric evaluation". On 14th of December 2001, the press reported that Ho was acquitted because "he was found to be mentally ill."

On July 3rd 2002, Ho was arrested again in his home and his computer seized. The alleged offense was criminal defamation over two unspecified articles which he had posted in an online forum. Three weeks later on July 26th 2002, he was forcibly taken by two policemen from his home, driven to a prison cell in the police station and then transferred, yet again, to the Institute of Mental Health (IMH).

On 27 February 2005, Ho was again arrested after he had gone to a shopping mall to distribute anti-government leaflets. Again, he was driven to the IMH for further psychiatric tests.

More recently, on 3rd of June 2009, after Ho had posted online a police complaint he had filed against the Government for an alleged rigging of the 1997 General Elections, three policemen entered his apartment and seized his computer.

Despite all the arrests, Ho has yet to be convicted of any of the charges leveled against him by the authorities. And despite the repeated seizing of his computers over the years, Ho has never stopped blogging, even as he currently undergoes yet another round of police investigation for possible criminal defamation.

Gopalan Nair

59 year old Gopalan Nair was a former Singaporean opposition politician who had emigrated to the United States and taken up US citizenship. In May of 2008, he attended a three-day court hearing in Singapore to assess damages in a defamation suit that Prime Minister Lee Hsieng Loong and Minister Mentor Lee Kuan Yew had won against the opposition Singapore Democratic Party.

In his blog posting dated 29th of May 2008, Nair wrote that the presiding judge Belinda Ang was "throughout prostituting herself during the entire proceedings, by being nothing more than an employee of Mr Lee Kuan Yew and his son and carrying out their orders," and further challenged Lee to sue him for his remarks.

A day later, five plainclothes police officers arrested Nair as he stepped out of the elevator of his hotel. After being held in a police lock up for 5 days, Nair was produced in court to face charges. Over 4 days, State prosecutors filed a flip-flop of charges against Nair, including insulting a judge in an email, insulting a civil servant in a two-year old email and the Sedition Act for insulting a judge in his blog posting. All three charges were eventually dropped in favour of Section 228 of the Penal Code for insulting a High Court judge in his blog post.

After an 8-day trial, on September 17th 2008, Nair was sentenced to three months imprisonment. Prior to the conviction, Nair had removed all postings deemed by the Attorney-General to be unlawful.

After his release from prison, on 28th November 2008, Nair wrote from the United States on his blog that he would be withdrawing all undertakings and apologies made while under Singapore custody, and proceeded to repost all the articles which he had removed while in Singapore. He is currently barred from entering Singapore again unless he obtains prior permission from the Singapore Government. Throughout 2009, he has posted an monthly average of 15 articles on his blog, all of which highly critical of Lee Kuan Yew and the Singapore Government.

3rd tier of censorship

In Singapore, every time politically sensitive subjects are raised in public, there is great uneasiness that one's phone is being tapped, emails monitored, movements and speech recorded. The defense against this perceived State surveillance is often avoidance that is to say stay away from discussing politics in public, stay away from activities or speech that may put one under surveillance. This climate of political fear creates a culture of self-censorship, even on the internet.

Conclusion - One step forward, two steps back

The Singapore Government adopts a one step forward, two steps back approach in calibrating space for political expression.

The rules governing Speakers' Corner, the gazetted free speech zone in the city-state's downtown business district, was amended in September of 2008 to allow for protests and demonstrations. However, in July this year, the police installed five CCTVs in the vicinity of the park with a view to monitor activities on its grounds. Similarly, a Films Act amendment in March this year had allowed for some types of political films to be made, such as live recordings of political events and election mainfestos, but introduced new restrictions such as the prohibition of dramatisation, animation and scenes of illegal activities in political films. A new Public Order Act exempts cultural and recreational events from police licences but tightens the noose on all cause-related activities. By the time the APEC Summit gets underway in Singapore, the Act will require that all public protests be licensed by the police, including those staged by one person.

In conclusion, even as the internet has provided an avenue for Singaporeans to express themselves, much of what gets said in cyberspace remain in cyberspace, as the laws governing political expression in general has not changed, and in some cases, further tightened.

Sources and Relevant Links:

Singapore Rebel The 3 tiers of censorship in Singapore 05 November 2009

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