Several international and regional civil society organisations have called on the Government to immediately withdraw its police report against independent regional journalism outlet New Naratif, and to stop “abusing the law to harass” human rights defenders and independent journalists.
Just today (2 Oct), a joint statement issued by the ASEAN Parliamentarians for Human Rights (APHR), Amnesty International, Article 19, CIVICUS, Forum Asia, Human Rights Watch, and Scholars at Risk urged the Singapore Government to drop its police report against New Naratif.
“We, the undersigned civil society organizations, urge the Government of Singapore to order the Elections Department (ELD) to immediately withdraw its police report against New Naratif, and to cease abusing the law to harass critical voices and independent journalists.”
The organisations said the police report made against the publication follows “a well-documented pattern of Singaporean authorities using vague and broadly-worded laws to unduly restrict the right to freedom of expression, and harass human rights defenders and independent journalists”.
The Elections Department (ELD) under the Prime Minister’s Office had earlier on (18 Sept) issued a press statement saying that the Assistant Returning Officer (ARO) had filed a police report against New Naratif.
The publication, which co-founded and managed by historian Thum Ping Tjin, was alleged of publishing “paid advertisements that amounted to the illegal conduct of election activity under s83(2) of the Parliamentary Elections Act (PEA) during the recent 2020 General Election”.
The ARO had issued three notices to Facebook on 3 July, 7 July, and 8 July 2020 to remove five unauthorised paid advertisements published on its platform by New Naratif.
New Naratif condemned the police report made against it as a politically motivated attack on freedom of expression and described it as harassment.
Under the PEA, the conduct of any election activity requires prior written authority signed by a candidate or their election agent.
ELD claimed that neither New Naratif nor its representatives or agents were authorised by any candidate or election agent in this GE to conduct election activity.
However, the civil society organisations pointed out that the scope of “election activity” under the PEA is “extremely broad”.
“Virtually any act of information dissemination or awareness-raising relating to key issues of public interest conducted in the lead-up to or during an election can fall under the overbroad scope of ‘promoting electoral success’ or ‘prejudicing electoral prospects,’ and must therefore receive prior written authorization.
“The provision is so vague that it does not allow for individuals to be able to adequately predict what activity could fall foul of the law, while allowing the Elections Department to control, censor and potentially criminalize any political speech and discussion during the election period,” they stated.
Citing the international human rights law, the civil society organisations pointed out that the PEA has failed to meet the requirements for restricting freedom of expression.
“According to international human rights law, all restrictions on freedom of expression should be provided for by clear, detailed and well-defined laws; be imposed to serve a legitimate aim, namely to protect the rights and reputation of others, national security, public order, public health or public morals; and restrictions must be both necessary and proportionate to achieve the defined legitimate aim.”
Additionally, they urged the Government to repeal all repressive laws that curtail the rights of freedom of expression and proposed to impose legal mechanisms to ensure that the rights are applied to all and not subject to “unlawful restrictions”.
“Furthermore, the law is particularly problematic as the Elections Department is not an independent body but is part of the Prime Minister’s Office.
“This allows for discriminate advantage to be given by the ELD, which answers to the Prime Minister, to information, expression and opinions expressed in line with or favourable to the ruling party, rather than politically opposing viewpoints.”
The organisations also implored the Government to “end the intimidation and harassment” of human rights defenders and stop abusing the legal system.
They emphasized that the right to freedom of expression is “crucial” during elections, and that it should be “guaranteed” by allowing free media, freedom to discuss and debate public affairs, and the right to hold peaceful assemblies.
While associations should be able to engage in “a plurality of political ideas and viewpoints” through fair and balanced election campaigning and advertising.
“Particularly within the context of Singapore, where the election campaign period often lasts only for days or a couple of weeks this provision allows for censuring of independent media outlets crucial to facilitate information and dialogue on key issues of public interest within a narrow period during which it is most pertinent to people in Singapore prior to the casting of their votes,” the organisations asserted.