Fake news law proposal, another tool to crackdown on critics

Expression

Parliamentary committee recommends legislation to curb fake news

On 20th September 2018, the parliamentary Select Committee on "deliberate online falsehoods” made 22 recommendations to halt the viral spread of fake news including “adopting laws empowering the government to swiftly disrupt the spread of fake news”. The committee also recommended that government “consider laws to disrupt the flows of digital advertising revenue to publishers of online falsehoods, as well as criminal sanctions for perpetrators of deliberate online falsehoods”.

The Singapore Parliament established a Select Committee on Deliberate Online Falsehoods - Causes, Consequences and Countermeasures in January 2018. The committee examined the use of digital technology to deliberately spread falsehoods online, why people spread falsehoods, and the types of individuals and entities who engage in these activities. It also investigated the impact of online falsehoods on Singapore’s institutions and democratic processes.

In April 2018, Amnesty International condemned the treatment of activists during the committee hearings. They said that there was “criticism of and misrepresentation of civil society activists and organisations that have participated in the hearings, including the forced removal of a political activist”. The organisation also said that views of civil society activists and organisations were repressed during the hearings. A joint civil society statement on 2nd April 2018 stated that the “the hearings were hardly open or consultative” and were used to discredit activists who came before it.

Human rights groups have also raised concerns that a fake news law would add to the list of overly broad criminal and civil laws that already exist in Singapore that have been used to silence dissent. Amnesty International said:

“Amnesty International calls on the Singaporean government to ensure that any proposed legislation resulting from the hearings does not act as another tool to crack down on activists, journalists, and government critics. Any legislation proposed must be subject to proper scrutiny, and does not quash freedom of expression.”

As the CIVICUS Monitor has documented previously, 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 who have faced charges include bloggers, cartoonists, lawyers and the foreign media.

Court grants permission for appeal against service of contempt papers

On 3rd September 2018, the Singapore Court of Appeal granted permission for Li Shengwu to appeal against a court order that allowed the Attorney-General to serve him papers in the United States in relation to a contempt of court case.

The Attorney General started proceedings for contempt against Li Shengwu, nephew of Singapore Prime Minister Lee Hsien Loong on 21st August 2017, over a Facebook post published on 15th July 2017. The post stated that “the Singapore Government is very litigious and has a pliant court system”. It was related to a family dispute over the fate of the Oxley Road home of his late grandfather, Lee Kuan Yew, Singapore’s founding prime minister. Li Shengwu stated later that the post was intended to criticise the “litigious nature” of the Singapore government and its effect on media freedom but the Attorney General referred to the post as an "egregious and baseless attack" on the judiciary.

After the court made its decision, Shengwu’s father, Lee Hsien Yang wrote in a Facebook post on 4th September 2018 that the decision vindicates "our belief that Shengwu has raised serious issues that need proper consideration". 

Association

Smear campaign against dissidents and activists

Representatives of the Singapore government unleashed a smear campaign against a group of dissidents and activists after they met the Malaysian Prime Minister.

Exiled activist Tan Wah Piow, historian Dr. Thum Ping Tjin, activist Jolovan Wham, freelance journalist Kirsten Han and graphic novelist Sonny Liew, met Malaysian Prime Minister Mahathir Mohamad on 30th August 2018. Among the issues discussed include Malaysia-Singapore relations, democracy, political reform, human rights and LGBT equality. It was reported that Tan Wah Piow, who is part of a group called Forces for the Renewal of Southeast Asia, invited Mahathir to speak at a conference on democracy in the region.

After the meeting, Singapore MP Seah Kian Peng, publicly condemned the group on Facebook saying: “I’m amazed that Dr. Thum and his supporters should proclaim that Singapore is part of Malaysia (or Malaya). Perhaps that is why he thinks it is permissible to ask its current prime minister to interfere in our affairs. It appears quite clear to me that PJ Thum does not wish Singapore well.”

Law and Home Affairs Minister K. Shanmugam also issued a statement criticising them saying “we can have vigorous debates within Singapore about our own affairs. But you cross a red line when you invite foreign powers or foreign leaders into Singapore politics.”

Activist Kirsten Han said “Mr Seah's baseless claims have had an incendiary effect, triggering a torrent of accusations of treason and people shouting about us being ‘traitors’. We're now also getting death threats”. She urged Seah to retract his baseless statements.

Legal challenge to 377A

On 10th September 2018, Johnson Ong Ming filed a legal challenge against Section 377A of the Penal Code that criminalises consensual sexual relations between men, arguing that it was inconsistent with Singapore’s constitution.

The challenge was based on three articles in the Constitution which states that “no person shall be deprived of his life or personal liberty save in accordance with law”. The other two articles state that “all persons are equal before the law and entitled to the equal protection of the law", and "there shall be no discrimination against citizens of Singapore on the ground only of religion, race, descent or place of birth in any law".

Section 377A under the Penal Code is a colonial law that criminalises consensual sex between adult men, although it is no more actively enforced in Singapore. Gay people continued to suffer discrimination in Singapore. For example, because same-sex partnerships are not recognised by the state, the permission to acquire public housing, subsidized or otherwise, is granted almost exclusively to married heterosexual couples with or without children.

In 2014, legal challenges on the constitutionality of the law failed. The court held that Section 377A did not violate Article 9 as the phrase "life and liberty" referred only to the personal liberty of a person from unlawful incarceration and not to the right of privacy and personal autonomy. The court also ruled that Section 377A fell outside the scope of Article 12, which forbids discrimination of citizens on grounds including religion, race and place of birth. The court observed that Article 12 did not contain the words "gender", "sex" and "sexual orientation", which related to Section 377A.

The new challenge came about after India’s Supreme Court decriminalised homosexuality, on 6th September. When asked about the ruling, Law and Home Affairs Minister K. Shanmugam said, "(In Singapore) if you look at this issue, it is a deeply split society. The majority are opposed to any change to section 377A, they are opposed to removing it.” Shanmugam added that depending on the legislation, public opinion is "often relevant" during public policymaking in Parliament.