30 Jul 2004

Reporters without borders report

Everythings FINE Here

Population : 4,183,000
Internet users : 2,100,000 (2002)
Average charge for 20 hours of connection : 9 euros
DAI* : 0.75
Situation** : difficult

The government is everywhere, censorship rules and civil society is weak in Singapore. Such state control does not however include the excesses or violence found in China or Cuba. The leaders of the city-state warn that economic prosperity has to be paid for with freedom. The Internet in Singapore is almost devoid of political discussion and dissent only occurs on websites and discussion forums run from outside the country.

"I'm often accused of interfering in the private lives of citizens. Yet, if I did not, had I not done that, we wouldn't be here today." This remark by former prime minister Lee Kuan Yew sums up the policy of the country's longtime ruler - that civil liberties were never a priority and that a good citizen should remember the national interest is always more important. This has remained the government's attitude since Lee partly handed over power to his successors in 1990 after ruling for 31 years.

The Internet is censored along with the traditional media, but the government was one of the first in the world to realise its importance as a means of dissent by civil society. It began regulating Internet activity in 1999 and the 11 September 2001 attacks speeded up an already advanced process.

ISPs under control

The government pushed through two major computer and Internet laws in 1998. One, the Computer Misuse Act, gave police wide powers to intercept online messages and said the authorities could decode encrypted messages in the course of investigations and under supervision of a prosecutor. The other law, on e-commerce, allowed police to seize and search computers without a warrant to do so. The two measures added to a series of laws cracking down on individual freedom, especially the Internal Security Act (ISA).

Since the late 1990s, the Internet has been under the control of the Singapore Broadcasting Authority (SBA), which monitors website access and content and calls for observance of a charter defining "responsible" Internet activity.

It requires ISPs to block any sites containing material that supposedly undermines public security, national defence, racial and religious harmony and public morality and more than 100 sites considered pornographic are thought to have been blocked. ISPs have to follow a code of conduct and must have an operating licence. They must also install filters on their systems, which block most pornographic material but are also used to bar access to political content, especially at election-time.

Employers are legally allowed to monitor the e-mail of their workers, who have no means of appeal if they are sacked as a result of an intercepted message.

Political and religious websites must be registered with the Media Development Authority (MDA), which was set up in 2002 through a merger of several media supervisory bodies and requires ISPs to block access to about 100 sites considered undesirable.

Open-ended power to monitor the Internet

An amendment to article 15 (a) of the Computer Misuse Act was passed by parliament in November 2003 to authorise complete surveillance of an Internet user through real-time software and the person's arrest before an offence is committed. Cyber-criminals can now be imprisoned for up to three years.

Member of parliament Ho Geok Choo said the amendment was "very much like the cyberspace equivalent" of the ISA, which was passed to fight classic crime. The ISA, which dates from the time of independence, has long been used by the regime to make arbitrary arrests of political dissidents.
Some MPs criticised the vague phrasing of the law and Chee Soon Juan, secretary-general of the Singapore Democratic Party, said it was just an excuse for the government to control Internet activity.

The law does not say what kind of body or organisation the home affairs (interior) minister can authorise to monitor the Internet or what action the minister can take in the event of "imminent attacks." No independent body to review such decisions is mentioned.

Discussion forum under attack

The online forum Singapore Review, which carries criticism of the government, was hacked into on 6 October 2003 by someone who flooded the Yahoo-hosted site with up to 600 bogus messages an hour, driving 200 participants out of the forum.

The website, which calls itself "an alternative" to the country's "propaganda media," carries articles from the world press and reports by international human rights organisations. Its editor, who uses the pseudonym Melanie Hewlitt, encourages participants to speak their mind, which she says the country's media are incapable of doing.


The online forum Singapore Review

The Southeast Asia freedom of expression group Think Centre

Site of James Gomez, expert on freedom of expression issues in Singapore

The regulatory Media Development Authority

Reporters Without Borders


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