Historian and Managing Director of the New Naratif, Dr. PJ Thum has been summoned again for questioning by the Singapore Police yet again over New Naratif’s alleged illegal conduct under s83(2) of the Parliamentary Elections Act (PEA) during the 2020 General Election. The police are interrogating Dr. Thum over five election-related Facebook posts boosted by New Naratif in July 2020.
This is the second time in less than six months that Dr. Thum has been interrogated and The Online Citizen stands in solidarity with Dr. Thum and the New Naratif over this seeming continued harassment of Dr. Thum.
In August last year, this publication highlighted at least 10 violations of election rules that the Elections Department (ELD) had then not yet addressed. This included, among others, a two and a half minute political campaign video introducing PAP MP’s Sun Xueling who contested in the Punggol West SMC. The video included multiple scenes of children who were of preschool and primary school age.
In September, last year, this publication pointed out that if the ELD wanted to investigate Dr. Thum and the New Naratif for breaking out election rules, why was it not also investigating the ruling Peoples’ Action Party (PAP) for also seemingly breaking rules? In the same month, Dr. Thum had pointed out the “double standard” when his house was “ransacked” by four police officers and his belongings confiscated, while no actions were taken against Transport Minister Ong Ye Kung as he posted up a video that involved a child during the elections, displaying propaganda and explicitly breaking the law. Dr. Thum also questioned the need for four police officers to escort the New Naratif founder back to his home to confiscate his laptop when all they did was to seal the device.
These would appear to be acts of intimidation and a form of harassment that is similar to what the Editor of this publication, Mr Terry Xu, had to endure when he was himself subjected to interrogation.
Furthermore in Dr. Thum’s second interview with the Police, he was interrogated for three hours during which the police asked him questions regarding the internal structure of New Naratif, the decision-making and content creation processes, and funding. In particular, police were interested in the duties and responsibilities of the managing director, and who else in the organisation had the authority to make decisions.
“The questions were framed around the boosted posts, but they were completely irrelevant to the actual case, because the wording of Parliamentary Elections Act explicitly makes clear that intention is irrelevant as to whether something is elections advertising, and that the Elections Department (Prime Minister’s Office) has fully discretion to decide whether something is elections advertising or not. I declined to answer those questions as they were not relevant to the investigation”, Dr. Thum said to International Press Institute (IPI).
“I believe the questions to be an attempt to fish for information regarding the internal workings of New Naratif, in order to incorporate the information into the proposed law against ’foreign intervention´. Minister for Law K Shanmugam, in a speech in August 2019, made clear that this law is aimed squarely at two independent media outlets: Online Citizen Asia and New Naratif”, Dr. Thum said.
“Minister for Manpower Josephine Teo just this week in Parliament reiterated the PAP government’s intention to pass such a law. Online Citizen Asia Editor-in-Chief Terry Xu, when he was questioned by the police in March 2020, also got questions about the internal workings of his organisation, and he too refused to answer these questions.”
Civil society has come together to express their support for Dr. Thum with Amnesty International, Article 19, ASEAN Parliamentarians for Human Rights, CIVICUS, FORUM-ASIA, International Press Institute (IPI), Human Rights Watch, and Scholars at Risk releasing a joint statement to reiterate their call for the Singapore government to drop the investigation of New Naratif. They also called on the authorities to repeal or substantially amend all laws that curtail the rights to freedom of expression, association, and peaceful assembly to bring them into line with international standards.
“It is disingenuous for the PAP government to be carrying out such acts of harassments against members of the press via the use of the civil service. It is also hypocritical for the PAP government to be commencing investigations into Dr. Thum over alleged offences of Parliamentary Elections Act (PEA) when the Election Department had closed its eyes towards various violations of the Act in the recent General Election by members of the public and TOC Asia”. said Mr Xu.
The Online Citizen stands alongside this statement and calls on all politically motivated harassment and investigations to come to a stop once and for all.
Background of the police report
On 18 September 2020, the ELD released a press statement in which it stated that it had filed a police report against the independent online media outlet New Naratif for “illegal conduct of election activity” for alleged publication of five paid advertisements on Facebook, without the written authorisation of a candidate or his election agent during the General Election of July 2020.
On the same day, Dr. Thum was notified that he would need to report to the police for questioning. Three days later (21 Sep), he reported to Clementi Police Station, where he was subjected to questioning for four and a half hours. The police also accompanied him to his home, and seized his laptop.
While the Elections Department’s statement does not specify which Facebook posts were allegedly illegally advertised, it issued a statement on 3 July in which it directed Facebook to “remove unauthorised paid Internet Election Advertising”.
Following the statement, New Naratif received pro-forma emails from Facebook stating that the following posts did not comply with their advertising policy:
- a satirical video advertising a perfume called “Discretion” to denounce the abuse of broadly-worded laws by Singapore’s Prime Minister;
- a post compiling articles critical of the ruling People’s Action Party (PAP);
- a post compiling articles about the lack of transparency and accountability in Singapore’s government;
- a video explaining how the use of the Protection from Online Falsehoods and Manipulation Act (POFMA) can “have devastating consequences” in times of elections; and
- a post compiling articles about racial discrimination in Singapore.
The posts remain online, but according to New Naratif, they did not re-boost them.