by Deborah Choo/
The Court of Appeal reserved judgment on Monday after the court hearing of British author and investigative journalist Alan Shadrake who was charged for contempt of court last year for certain things in his book, Once a Jolly Hangman: Justice in the Dock.
“Overexuberance of justice can chill public debate,” lawyer of the appellant, Mr M Ravi cautioned.
In November 2010, Justice Quentin Loh found Mr Shadrake guilty of contempt for eleven out of the 14 statements that were the basis for his charge submitted by the Attorney-General Chambers. Mr Shadrake was sentenced to a six weeks imprisonment and a $20,000 fine. An appeal was then submitted by Mr Ravi on behalf of his appellant on three grounds: (1) the judge erred in his statement of the test for liability for contempt of court on the ground of scandalising the judiciary, (2) the judge erred in his interpretation of the passages held to have given rise to the contempt, and (3) the sentence set down by the judge was manifestly excessive.
Presenting his case to Justice Andrew Phang, Justice Lai Siu Chiu and Justice Philip Pillai, Mr Ravi appealed to the courts as per Justice Loh’s previous judgment of “real risk” as merely “something more than a de minimis” and does not constitute grave danger to the public.
Mr Ravi added that his client’s comments should be seen as one’s inherent right to freedom of speech and fair criticism, both of which are given in good faith and with no intent to malign Singapore’s judiciary and courts. He argued that the statements in Mr Shadrake’s book can be seen from the point of a legitimate debate. He also expressed that the Singaporean public is generally well educated and discerning enough to not allow the opinions of an author to undermine public confidence in the judiciary.
However, Deputy Public Prosecutor in the Attorney-General’s Chambers David Chong argued otherwise. Mr Chong said that considering the context of which the 14 statements were made, it poses real and present danger to undermining public confidence in the judiciary. He added that any allegations of partiality and impropriety against the judiciary made by Mr Shadrake falls outside the criteria of fair criticism and therefore Mr Shadrake should be held accountable for his actions.
Countering this argument, Mr Ravi questioned why if the book is found by the authorities to be of danger to society, why the book is not banned.
Referring to Mr Shadrake’s remarks to the British newspaper The Guardian last year and his intentions to publish a second edition of the book, Mr Chong said, “It is reprehensible as the appellant maligned the entire judiciary and is not in the least remorseful but openly defiant.”
Mr Chong pointed out that the rights to freedom of expression on Singapore’s judiciary do not apply to a foreigner.
He also said that there are legitimate ways of appealing through the constitutional enquiry process when it comes to any aggrieved persons who wish to file a complaint against the biasness of a judge in a particular judgment.
Rebutting this argument, Mr Ravi said that “While England has the Judicial Complaint Committee, Singapore uniquely doesn’t. The absence of such a public mechanism results in the Singapore courts being unfavorably placed. It is by no fault of this court but that of the province of parliament.”
All three judges also questioned the AG in the scenario where a judge’s judgment is in fact biased, what are then the rights of a third party to comment and what are his or her channels of complaint.
Advocating that the previous sentence meted out by Justice Loh was “minimal”, Mr Chong asked the courts for Mr Shadrake to bear the costs of the appeal proceedings as well. However, the judges overruled this as no appeal with this regards has been submitted by the AG.
“I feel confident that our judiciary and our courts are able to withstand any criticism,” said Mr Ravi before he rested his case in court. “Singaporean citizens are not gullible. No matter how outrageous or scurrilous any criticism may be, as long as the judges conduct themselves with respect, it’ll speak for itself.”