Singapore, a city-state where high levels of economic development contrast with some of the world's strictest controls on free expression and assembly, plans to tighten laws governing the Internet and public gatherings. The Southeast Asian Press Alliance (SEAPA) and Reporters Without Borders (Reporters sans frontières, RSF) have expressed concern about the proposed amendments, which are part of a penal code review.
As increasing numbers of Singaporeans turn to the Internet for alternative viewpoints not found in state-controlled media, the government has proposed expanding certain sections of the penal code to cover offences committed via electronic media. Under the suggested amendments, bloggers and other Internet users could face prison sentences or fines for defamation, making "statements that cause public mischief" and "wounding" of racial or religious feelings. Documents, including film and sound recordings, sent over the Internet could also be subject to criminal prosecution, reports the "Financial Times".
The amendments, which include a provision making it an offence for anyone outside the country to abet an offence committed within the country, would allow the authorities to prosecute Internet users living abroad. RSF believes the government is "sending a message to the many Singaporeans living abroad, especially students, reminding them of the need to censor themselves when writing about their country."
The proposed penal code amendments come on the heels of several recent cases involving bloggers, notes RSF. For example, in April 2005, Jiahao Chen, who was studying in the United States, was forced to close down his website after being accused of defamation for criticising a government-administered system of university grants.
More recently, on 6 November 2006, a judge ordered Yap Keng Ho, a member of the opposition Singapore Democratic Party, to remove from his blog a video of himself speaking in public during general elections earlier this year. The blogger, and two other defendants, have been charged with speaking in public without a permit.
Also of concern to SEAPA and RSF is a proposed amendment to strengthen limits on "unlawful assembly." Outdoor gatherings of more than four people already require a police permit. The amendments would give the government more power to act against public gatherings as it would no longer have to prove in court an intention to cause a disturbance.
Singapore's limits on free speech and assembly attracted international attention during the annual meeting of the International Monetary Fund and World Bank in September. The authorities banned outdoor protests and barred some accredited representatives of non-governmental organisations from entering the country.
The proposals will come before parliament at the beginning of 2007. RSF recently ranked Singapore 146th out of 167 countries in its 2006 Worldwide Press Freedom Index.
Visit these links:
- Freedom House 2006 "Freedom of the Press" report
- Singapore Ministry of Home Affairs, Proposed Penal Code Amendments
- Yap Keng Ho's blog
- "Financial Times"