GENEVA – The United Nations Special Rapporteur on freedom of opinion and expression, David Kaye, said, “The lesson that somebody can be thrown in jail for their speech is exactly the wrong kind of message that any government should be sending to anybody, but especially to young people.”
He added, “The criminalization of a broad range of legitimate, even if offensive forms of expression is not the right tool for any State to pursue legitimate aims such as tolerance and the rights of others.”
Mr Kaye made the statement following the 29 September sentencing by a Singapore court teenage blogger Amos Yee to six weeks imprisonment and a S$2000 fine for ‘wounding religious feelings’.
In his earlier statement issued in August, Mr Kaye noted that the international human rights law allows only serious and extreme instances of incitement to hatred to be prohibited as criminal offenses, not other forms of expression, even if they are offensive, disturbing or shocking.
“Threats of criminal action and lawsuits contribute to a culture of self-censorship, and hinder the development of an open and pluralistic environment where all forms of ideas and opinions should be debated and rebutted openly,” the Special Rapporteur highlighted.
Kaye had warned that the Amos Yee’s trial over posts he made on his Facebook page and comments in his blog is deeply worrying and a sign of the increased criminalization of expression in the country
“First, the trial concerns an expression that is lawful under international human rights law, and second, the person being tried is considered a child under international human rights law,” Mr Kaye said.
The 17-year old blogger was charged over his Facebook posts and blog posts which allegedly wounded the religious feelings of Muslims and Christians.
Just last year, the blogger was sentenced to four weeks in prison for posting a video that caricatured Singapore’s first Prime Minister, Lee Kuan Yew.
“Tolerance and the rights of others are legitimate aims for any state to pursue. However, the criminalization of a broad range of legitimate, even if offensive, expression is not the right tool for this purpose, and may well have the opposite effect,” the UN expert stressed.
“International human rights law allows only serious and extreme instances of incitement to hatred to be prohibited as criminal offenses, not other forms of expression, even if they are offensive, disturbing or shocking.”
The trial of the teenage blogger is one of several cases in Singapore that reflect a widening crackdown not only on controversial expression but also political criticism and dissent, Mr Kaye noted.
In May this year, Teo Soh Lung, a human rights lawyer, and Roy Ngerng, a blogger, were investigated for allegedly breaching the Parliamentary Elections Act for posts on their private Facebook pages that discussed government transparency and accountability.
The Act prohibits election campaigning in the last 24 hours prior to elections, yet explicitly exempts the online expression of a private individual’s political views. This was the first time individuals were investigated under such provisions.
Despite the use of the Parliamentary Elections Act to investigate, search and confiscate personal belongings of Teo Soh Lung and Roy Ngerng, to date no charges have been brought against them.
“Threats of criminal action and lawsuits contribute to a culture of self-censorship, and hinder the development of an open and pluralistic environment where all forms of ideas and opinions should be debated and rebutted openly,” the UN expert stressed.
“States are under an obligation not only to respect and protect, but also to promote freedom of expression,” he emphasized. “Increased criminalization of expression is in breach of this obligation.”
Phil Robertson, Deputy Director of Asia Division Human Rights Watch, said on the matter, “By prosecuting Amos Yee for his comments, no matter how outrageous they may have been, Singapore has unfortunately doubled down on a strategy that clearly violates freedom of expression. For a country that prides itself on efficiency, Singapore should re-examine its approach, because every time the authorities go after him, it just adds to his on-line audience who are interested to find out the latest thing he said.”