Civil rights activist Jolovan Wham and Singapore Democratic Party’s John Tan convicted under new contempt of court laws over Facebook posts allegedly “scandalising the judiciary”

Left: Jolovan Wham. Right: John Tan. Source: ST

Civil rights activist Jolovan Wham and Singapore Democratic Party (SDP)’s John Tan Liang Joo became the first individuals to be convicted under new laws governing instances of contempt of court in Singapore, particularly the Administration of Justice (Protection) Act 2016, which came into effect on 1 Oct last year.

In deciding that Mr Wham and Mr Tan were guilty of contempt of court, Justice Woo Bih Li reasoned that the posts made by the two individuals “posed a risk that public confidence in the administration of justice would be undermined.”

The statement made by Mr Wham in a Facebook post dated 27 Apr this year was a response to to independent Malaysian online media platform Malaysiakini’s act of filing a constitutional challenge against the nation’s anti-fake news laws on the grounds that such laws infringe the right to freedom of expression, in addition to Mr Wham having read several Malaysian cases and a book by the late former Solicitor-General-turned-exile Francis Seow titled “Beyond Suspicion? The Singapore Judiciary”.

Justice Woo delivered the judgement at the High Court on Tuesday (9 Oct), after almost five months since the Attorney-General’s Chambers (AGC) initiated legal proceedings against the two individuals over Facebook posts questioning the impartiality of judges in Singapore courts.

The AGC alleged in a media release on the same day that the posts had “impugned the integrity and impartiality of Singapore’s judges, and thus the Singapore courts” by insinuating that judges in Singapore are politically influenced, particularly by the government, adding that “Mr Tan’s Facebook post wrongfully asserted that Wham’s Facebook post is true.”

Eugene Thuraisingam, who represents Mr Wham, argued that his client was “merely comparing the relative independence” of judges in different jurisdictions, and that there was no intention to degrade the integrity of Singapore courts and judges.

In response to Justice Woo’s ruling, Human Rights Watch, has condemned the enactment and subsequent enforcement of contempt of court laws, stating that such laws “blatantly violated freedom of expression and confounded any real sense of justice” and suggesting that such laws are a tool to clamp down on dissenting voices and “political activists”.

Deputy director of Human Rights Watch in the Asia-Pacific region Phil Robertson wrote in an email: “The real tragedy in this whole situation is Singapore thinks it’s OK to employ such a rights-abusing law.”

A separate hearing for Mr Wham and Mr Tan’s sentencing will be held after 7 Nov.

Under the new laws dealing with contempt of court, actions that fall under the territory of contempt include the following:

  • Disobeying court orders;
  • Sub judice and scandalising the court.

While such conduct have already been prohibited under existing laws prior to the enactment of the new laws, the standard in risk assessment is lowered from “real risk” to simply “risk” in determining whether an action counts as scandalising the court.

The new legislation was passed by the Parliament as a result of a debate in Aug two years ago despite the strong objections made by the Workers’ Party. The sole opposition party in the House rejected the proposal to enact new contempt of court laws, arguing that the new laws will potentially suppress freedom of speech in Singapore.

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