Choo Zheng Xi / Editor-in-chief
The final nail in the coffin of liberalizing the legal regime on online political films was driven in today, as amendments to the Films Act were passed by Parliament.
TOC previously participated in the process of submitting our views, together with other members of the socio-political blogosphere, to the Advisory Committee on the Impact of New Media on Society (AIMS).
We were pleasantly surprised at the receptiveness of the committee headed by ex Singapore Press Holdings (SPH) chairperson Cheong Yip Seng and Tan Cheng Han SC, who made bona fide efforts to engage bloggers when crafting AIMS’ recommendations to the government. Over more than a year, dialogues, debates, press conferences were held to plot a direction towards liberalization.
The final recommendation from AIMS incorporated several of the suggestions the Bloggers 13 had raised. These included the repeal of Section 33 of the Films Act and further clarity on how the broadly framed Section 35 was to be used.
Although TOC disagreed with the extent of the amendments AIMS recommended, the final amendment that passed in Parliament was a complete repudiation of the process of consultation that bloggers, academics, and members of the public had been engaged in for more than a year and a half.
Section 2 (3), which directly impacts Section 33, has been made more vague, complex and self-serving and Section 35 has been completely ignored. Worse, this whole charade has been palmed off as “liberalization”, a slap in the face to all players who embarked on the exercise of airing our views hoping to see substantial positive changes to legislation.
Cheapening the law for political profit
Section 33 of the Films Act has been dubbed a “Chee Soon Juan” law: a law passed purely for the purpose of limiting Dr Chee Soon Juan’s ability to use new technologies to campaign.
In July 1996, the Singapore Democratic Party (SDP) applied for a license to sell a political video it had made in anticipation of the1997 General Election. The government rejected the license, and subsequently created Section 33 of the Films Act in 1997, after it had won the General Elections.
The introduction of Section 33 was directly triggered by the SDP’s video, as then MICA Minister George Yeo acknowledged when proposing the amendment in 1998.
It seems Section 33’s “Chee Soon Juan law” moniker is destined to live on.
As Martyn See points out, the new amendment contains language tailored to fit Dr Chee. Videos must be made “on the basis of which candidates authorized by the political party to stand will seek to be elected at a Parliamentary election”. Films featuring Dr Chee, a bankrupt not able to “seek to be elected at a Parliamentary election”, would thus not be allowed.
The Films Act amendment does not decriminalize the making of a party political film: the penalty for making a party political film is still two years jail or a fine of $100,000. The amendment merely lists a series of films which will not be considered party political films under Section 2 subsection (3) of the Act. By logical induction, films containing political content that do not fall within these definitions are potentially proscribed political films.
Hence, an “assembly of persons or procession that is held in accordance with the law” (the new Section 2 subsection (3) (d) ) such as a Young PAP cycling event, will be allowed, whereas Martyn See’s film Speaker’s Cornered, which depicts the standoff between SDP members and the police during the IMF-World Bank meeting of 2006, is clearly meant to fall outside this permitted sphere.
The redraft of the Films Act seems specifically crafted to prevent filmmakers such as Ho Choon Hiong and Martyn See, and websites like TOC and Wayang Party, from documenting acts of civil disobedience. It is also clear that these amendments are intended to narrow the noose around the SDP’s neck.
TOC opposes such a blatant abuse of the privilege of law making.
Impracticality makes a nonsense of the law
Fortunately, these laws will have little discernible effect. As the Bloggers 13 and AIMS pointed out, the proliferation of political films online is impossible to stem. Political films can be anonymously uploaded and endlessly viewed. Their banning is also likely to increase their popularity: more than 100,000 viewers have watched Mr See’s first banned film, Singapore Rebel, on Google videos.
The sad victim of this will be the Law itself. The Films Act as it stands is notorious for its lack of enforceability. These amendments add complexity and naked political motivations to the law, while completely ignoring the contextual reality of a changing technological landscape.
It lays bare the PAP’s willful blindness to the damage it is doing to the respectability of our legal framework and makes it guilty of precisely what RADM Lui claims to abhor: “slick sound bites and political spin”.