Repression of Free Speech and Assembly Undermine Credibility
By Human Right Watch
Singapore’s government increased scrutiny of the Internet in a year in which it further restricted rights to freedom of expression and peaceful assembly, Human Rights Watch said today in its World Report 2016.
“In 2015, bloggers and online news portals increasingly faced punitive action for any criticism of the government,” said Phil Robertson, deputy Asia director at Human Rights Watch. “The Singapore government demonstrated its contempt for the free flow of information and freedom of expression that should be expected from a country that identifies itself as a credible global business and finance center.”
In the 659-page World Report 2016, its 26th edition, Human Rights Watch reviews human rights practices in more than 90 countries. In his introductory essay, Executive Director Kenneth Roth writes that the spread of terrorist attacks beyond the Middle East and the huge flows of refugees spawned by repression and conflict led many governments to curtail rights in misguided efforts to protect their security. At the same time, authoritarian governments throughout the world, fearful of peaceful dissent that is often magnified by social media, embarked on the most intense crackdown on independent groups in recent times.
The People’s Action Party (PAP), which has ruled Singapore since 1959, won 83 out of 89 parliamentary seats in the September general elections. The PAP government uses vague and overly broad legal provisions on public order, morality, security, and racial and religious harmony to sharply limit what its citizens can express and to prosecute those who earn the government’s displeasure.
In January 2015, a court convicted Alex Au, a popular blogger and LGBT activist, of the archaic offense of “scandalizing the judiciary” for a post critical of the court’s handling of two constitutional challenges to Singapore’s anti-sodomy law. Au’s conviction was affirmed on appeal.
In March, the authorities charged 16-year-old blogger Amos Yee with “wounding religious feelings” in an online video he posted on YouTube after the death of Singapore’s founding Prime Minister Lee Kwan Yew, and with obscenity for posting a cartoon depicting Lee and the late British Prime Minister Margaret Thatcher having sex. Restrictive bail conditions – which Yee violated – prohibited him from posting anything while his case was ongoing. Yee was detained for a total of 53 days, and was sentenced in July to four weeks in prison, equivalent to time served. In October, the High Court dismissed Yee’s appeal of his conviction.
Government officials continued to use civil defamation as a means to silence critics. A court ordered Roy Ngerng Yi Ling to pay S$150,000 (US$106,000) in damages to Prime Minister Lee Hsien Loong for a 2014 blog post criticizing Lee’s management of the government’s Central Provident Fund.
Public demonstrations and other assemblies remained severely limited, with a permit required for any assembly outside of Hong Lim Park. Even events held within Hong Lim Park can result in prosecution by the authorities. Officials charged Han Hui Hui, Roy Ngerng Yi Ling, and four others with holding an unauthorized demonstration in Hong Lim Park following the authorities’ determination that the authorization allowed only speeches and not marching or other protest-like activities.
The government continued to restrict content that portrays LGBT people and issues in a positive light. While the pro-LGBT Pink Dot festival was held for the seventh consecutive year, the Media Development Authority (MDA) banned a Pink Dot promotional advertisement from being shown in movie theaters, ruling that it was “not in the public interest to allow cinema halls to carry advertising on LGBT issues.” In May 2015, the MDA banned television and radio stations from playing Jolin Tsai’s song and music video “We’re All Different, Yet The Same” because of the song’s lyrics on homosexuality.
“Singapore’s crackdown on bloggers and others asserting their free speech rights shows the government’s determination to place control over freedom,” Robertson said. “The city-state’s economic success can’t mask the insidious repression and censorship citizens face every day.”