International NGOs calls for parliamentary candidates and political party leaders to prioritise fundamental freedoms

Letter from FORUM-ASIA, CIVICUS, and the International Commission of Jurists

As Singaporeans prepare to go to the polls in parliamentary elections on 10 July 2020, the Asian Forum for Human Rights and Development (FORUM-ASIA), CIVICUS: World Alliance for Citizen Participation, and the International Commission of Jurists urge all parliamentary candidates and political party leaders to commit to respecting and protecting human rights, particularly fundamental freedoms, as part of their mandate.

The organisations have been documenting the state of civic space in Singapore, which is rated as ‘Obstructed’ by the CIVICUS Monitor. We are deeply concerned by the ongoing use of restrictive laws to limit the freedoms of expression, information, association and peaceful assembly with civil society activists, human rights defenders, lawyers, independent online media outlets and members of the political opposition facing prosecution, including through defamation suits and contempt of court charges.

These restrictions are inconsistent with international human rights law and standards and we urge all candidates to take steps to address these concerns which are crucial for a functioning democracy under the rule of law which respects fundamental freedoms.

Our organisations are particularly concerned about the abuse of civil and criminal defamation laws to penalise and harass individuals exercising their right to freedom of expression and information online.

In September 2019, Terry Xu, editor of independent news website The Online Citizen (TOC) was sued by Prime Minister Lee Hsien Loong for publishing an article on the website which had reported on a public feud between members of the Prime Minister’s family by referring to a Facebook post made by the Prime Minister’s wife.

Political activist and blogger Leong Sze Hian was similarly sued by the Prime Minister in December 2018 for sharing on Facebook an article  which alleged the Prime Minister was subject to investigation in relation to a corruption scandal in Malaysia. In the same month, Terry Xu and Daniel De Costa, the author of a letter that was posted on TOC, were charged for criminal defamation under sections 499 and 500 of the Penal Code following an article posted on TOC which alleged “corruption at the highest echelons” of Singapore’s government.

Criminal defamation laws impose limitations on freedom of expression which violate the principles of legality, necessity and proportionality under international law. In clarifying the scope of the right to freedom of expression and the limits of State restrictions of the right, the UN Human Rights Committee has held that “imprisonment is never an appropriate penalty” as it does not necessarily or proportionately advance the aim of protecting the reputation of others.

It has also noted that civil penalties for defamation should not be “excessively punitive” and must also comply with necessity and proportionality. Overbroad and illegitimate use of defamation provisions to target information deemed critical of the ruling regime creates a chilling effect that effectively restricts legitimate speech.

Our organisations also highlight the use of contempt of court provisions under domestic law to unduly restrict freedom of expression and information. Singapore’s Administration of Justice (Protection) Act is a vaguely worded law that allows for undue restrictions on freedom of expression and information under the guise of protecting the judicial system.

In April 2019, Jolovan Wham, an activist, and John Tan, an opposition politician, were fined S$5,000 (US$3,620) each for comments on Facebook, which had alleged that the Malaysian judiciary was more independent than Singapore’s judiciary in dealing with cases with political implications.

Human rights lawyer M Ravi is also being investigated under the Act for articles published on TOC regarding the extradition of his client in 2015. Criticism of the government which falls within the rights to freedom of expression and information, particularly information which relate to matters of public interest, should not be criminalised.

More recently, our organisations have also monitored the use of the Protection from Online Falsehoods and Manipulation Act (POFMA) – which was brought into force in October 2019 to combat false information online –  being increasingly used to target critics of the regime.

Human rights groups have documented that the Act contains vague and overbroad provisions, offers unfettered discretion to ministers and government authorities, lacks clear protection for freedom of expression and information, and does not adequately provide for oversight or accountability mechanisms.

Social media companies have also been legally compelled to block access to independent news sites in line with POFMA.

Those wanting to exercise their right to association and peaceful assembly have also faced restrictions and arrests including those undertaking solo protests. The Public Order Act has been used to investigate, charge and prosecute individuals.

These include Seelan Palay, a local artist, for his involvement in a one-man artistic performance in October 2017, two people for wearing t-shirts bearing a message against the death penalty in September 2019, lone protester Yan Jun in November 2019 for protesting against corruption, and climate protesters more recently.

In January 2019, Jolovan Wham was convicted for violating the Public Order Act after organising a public event without a permit. In May 2020, Wham was investigated under the Act again for posing in public with a placard with a smiley face, in solidarity with the climate protesters.

Concerns have been raised by civil society groups that due to these restrictions to civic freedoms and efforts to censor independent media, including through the abuse of legal frameworks to harass and persecute freedom of expression and information, the rights of Singaporean people to participate in the upcoming elections may be obstructed.

In this regard, we urge all political parties and candidates to ensure fundamental freedoms remain at the forefront of the debate in Singapore and use all avenues available to push for the implementation of recommendations outlined below:

  • Immediately dismiss charges against individuals being prosecuted for exercising their rights to freedom of expression, information, association and peaceful assembly
  • Halt the arrest and harassment of civil society activists, human rights defenders, lawyers, independent journalists, members of the political opposition and other individuals for merely exercising their fundamental freedoms and ensure that they can freely express their opinions without fear of reprisals
  • Repeal or amend all restrictive laws – including the Public Order Act, Administration of Justice (Protection) Act,  the Protection from Online Falsehoods and Manipulation Act and criminal defamation provisions – which criminalise or impose arbitrary restrictions on the right to freedom of expression, and bring legislation in line with international human rights law and standards
  • Refrain from imposing punitive measures on the exercise of the right to freedom of expression, including dissent, through the use of civil defamation suits
  • Ratify or accede to the International Covenant on Civil and Political Rights (ICCPR)
  • Enact a Freedom of Information law in which government information is presumed to be subject to disclosure unless there are compelling reasons that are consistent with domestic and international law to withhold them from the public
  • Ensure that human rights and fundamental freedoms, including civic freedoms, are respected and protected during the elections and the means and resources are available to ensure a secure voting environment during the run up to elections and the voting period itself
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