Prosecution of activist Jolovan Wham reinforces climate of intimidation against dissent

Peaceful assembly

Human rights and labour activist Jolowan Wham was charged in November 2017 for committing seven offences, including organising public assemblies without a police permit, as required under the Public Order Act; violating the Vandalism Act; and refusing to sign police statements under the Penal Code. In an interview, Jolovan asserted that:

" Singapore's Public Order Act - which requires a permit for any public gathering - needs to be amended. Even staging a one-person protest without a permit is illegal. Permits are very rarely granted, even those which involve only one person protesting".

Among the incidents he was charged with include:

  • On 14th July 2017, he and his friends held a candlelight vigil in solidarity with the family of a person facing the death penalty;
  • On 13th June 2017, he led a 'silent protest' inside a train over the arrest of 'Marxist conspirators' in 1987; and
  • On 26th November 2016, he organised an indoor forum that included Hong Kong pro-democracy activist Joshua Wong speaking via Skype.

If found guilty under the Public Order Act, Jolovan faces a fine of S$5,000 to 10,000 (3,700 to 7,400 USD) or imprisonment of up to six months or both. 

Regional civil society organisation Forum-Asia condemned the charges against Jolovan, declaring that:

“The various charges brought against Jolovan Wham constitute judicial harassment aimed at stifling his political dissent. All three activities were peaceful, and did not cause any public disturbance, nor did they damage or deface any property...FORUM-ASIA calls on the Singaporean Government to immediately and unconditionally drop all charges against Jolovan Wham. His right to exercise his fundamental freedoms should not be criminalised”.

Activists in Singapore responded by organising a petition and holding an event on 10th December 2017, International Human Rights Day, at Hong Lim Park to show their solidarity with Jolovan.

Expression

A detailed report by Human Rights Watch in November 2017 found that the Singapore government uses an array of laws to suppress free speech and peaceful assembly. Those repressive laws include the Public Order Act, the Sedition Act, the Broadcasting Act, various penal code provisions and laws on criminal contempt. Among those facing charges of contempt include bloggers, cartoonists, lawyers and the foreign media.

Deputy Asia Director at Human Rights Watch Phil Robertson stated that:

“Singapore promotes itself as a modern nation and a good place to do business, but people in a country that calls itself a democracy shouldn’t be afraid to criticize their government or speak out about political issues…direct and indirect restrictions on speech and public protest have long stifled debate on matters of public interest in Singapore”.

Concerns have arisen over moves by Singapore's government to curb ‘fake news’, which it considers to be a threat to national security, by possibly introducing new legislation. The authorities convened a Select Committee on Deliberate Online Falsehoods in January 2018 and have reportedly been seeking public feedback on its plans to combat disinformation. In a country where there are very few open spaces to engage in political discourse, this move is viewed as another step to regulate and curtail online discourse.