Singapore to tighten curbs on free speech

John Burton
Financial Times
10 Nov 06

Singapore is proposing to tighten laws governing the internet and public gatherings as part of an overhaul of the city-state’s penal code.

The changes would give the government broader statutory authority to prosecute offenders and to punish them with higher fines, in spite of promises by Lee Hsien Loong, the prime minister, to promote an “open society”.

Singapore has some of the world’s toughest restrictions on free speech and assembly. The issue received international attention during the recent International Monetary Fund/World Bank annual meeting. Singapore banned outdoor protests and some accredited representatives of non-governmental organisations were barred from entering.

Reporters Without Borders recently ranked Singapore 146th out of 167 countries surveyed for press freedom.

Outdoor gatherings of five or more persons and speaking in public without a police licence are already forbidden.

The proposed amendments, which will be submitted to parliament after a month-long period of public consultation, would give the government more power to act against public gatherings by no longer having to prove in court that they intended to cause a disturbance.

Singapore has laws that could be used against public protesters “but the definition of an offence will be wider now”, said Amolat Singh, a Singapore lawyer.

“If five or more persons gather in preparation to commit a crime, such as a gang robbery, it will constitute an unlawful assembly. We need to be able to take action even before they commit robbery,” the government said.

Internet users could face punishment for defamation and making “statements that cause public mischief” or for “the wounding of racial feelings”. Documents, including film or sound recordings, sent over the internet could be subject to criminal prosecution.

The internet has rapidly become an alternative to Singapore’s state-controlled media. A survey released on Thursday by the government’s Media Development Authority said 65 per cent of Singaporeans between 15 and 49 were at least moderate internet users, and a third of people in the same age group produced internet content, such as blogs.

The government said the new laws would help to combat crime, such as credit card fraud, and punish those who disturb racial and religious harmony.

The government remained unapologetic about its tough controls over the traditional media and the internet.

Southeast Asian Press Alliance Statement (09 Nov 06)

10 Nov 06

A review of Singapore’s Penal Code will see further curtailment of the already limited freedoms in the city-state notorious for its intolerance to basic free expression and assembly rights.

The Singapore Government is introducing 19 new offences and expanding the scope of 19 existing offences, to “bring the Penal Code up to date, and make it more effective in maintaining a safe and secure society in today’s context,” read a statement on the website of the Ministry of Home Affairs.

The Southeast Asian Press Alliance (SEAPA) notes with concern some proposed changes that will limit speech in an already stifled environment, even encroaching into the final frontier afforded by the Internet.

In particular, there is the expansion of certain sections to cover offences committed via the Internet and other electronic media, namely: section 298, which makes it an offence to deliberately “wound the religious feelings” of anyone, through words or other acts; section 499, which touches on defamation, and section 505, which covers “statements conducing to public mischief”.

In addition, section 298 may be expanded to include the “wounding of racial feelings”. The ministry said this will “provide another option to the Sedition Act, to charge such offenders in future cases”, referring to the September 2005 case of two men charged under the Sedition Act for posting racist comments on the Internet. One was eventually imprisoned for one month while the other was imprisoned for a day and fined a maximum S$5,000 (approx. US$). The maximum prison sentence is three years, but repeat offenders can be imprisoned up to five years.

There are also plans to enact a new offence that covers an action that is likely to cause racial or religious disharmony, or promote enmity on grounds of race or religion.

Another amendment that may affect Internet users is a new provision to make it an offence for anyone who, while outside the country, abets an offence committed in the country.

Also of particular concern is the amendment to section 141, on “unlawful assembly”. Already, outdoor gatherings of more than four people require a police permit, which critics see as a means of discouraging mobilisation for public discourse. With the amendment, a gathering of five or more people, whose “common object is to commit ANY offence, and not just those relating to public tranquility”, will be deemed an “unlawful assembly” [emphasis by the Ministry].

The proposed amendments have been posted on a website
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Singaporeans have until 9 December 2006 to make their views known. The amendments will be tabled to Parliament early next year.

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