The civic space in Singapore is “obstructed”, as rated by global civil society alliance CIVICUS. Its research tool, the CIVICUS Monitor, rates the conditions of civil society or civic spaces in countries across the world, providing ratings for 196 countries.

According to the alliance, the rating of “obstructed” is given to countries where civic spaces are “heavily contested by power holders who impose a combination of legal and practical constraints on the full enjoyment of fundamental rights”.

Though civil society organisations may exist in these countries, state authorities undermine them in myriad ways including the use of illegal surveillance, bureaucratic harassment and demeaning public statements.

CIVICUS notes that in countries where civic spaces are obstructed, citizens can organise and assemble peacefully but remain vulnerable to the use of excessive force; while journalists face the risk of physical attack and criminal defamation charges which encourages self-censorship.

On Monday (23 August), CIVICUS published an analysis of the civic space in Singapore in an article titled “Singapore PM listed as press freedom ‘predator’ as journalists continue to be targeted”.

The association pointed out that the government’s use of an array of “restrictive” laws to silence criticism was also raised by UN Human Rights Council in May 2021 during its review of Singapore’s human right’s records.

“Among the laws that states called to be revised or repealed include the Printing Presses Act, Protection from Online Falsehoods and Misinformation Act (POFMA), the Administration of Justice Act, the Protection from Online Falsehoods and Manipulation Act, the Public Order Act and the Penal Code,” noted CIVICUS.

The Singapore government is due to respond to these recommendations in September.

PM Lee on RSF list of press freedom violators, “predator”

In the article, CIVICUS goes on to refers to Prime Minister Lee Hsien Loong’s inclusion in the list of violators of press freedom by Reporters without Borders (RSF) in June 2021. This is in addition to the country being ranked 160th out of 180 on the 2021 World Press Freedom Index.

RSF defines ‘predators’ as heads of state who attack press freedom by pushing for censorship, arbitrarily imprisoning journalists or inciting violence against them.

CIVICUS highlighted the RSF’s remarks that PM Lee has pushed for censorship in Singapore and that he has “gagged the press” by using the Infocomm Media Development Authority to remove content or shut down media outlets.

RSF noted that this system leaves no room for press freedom.

Silencing critics and independent media

Diving into what Singapore’s obstructed civic space looks like, CIVICUS goes into detail about the various legal action taken against bloggers and the media, noting that PM Lee is “fond of suing bloggers he doesn’t like”.

The article writes: “He has an army of lawyers who sue them for astronomical sums, subjecting them to interminable legal proceedings with the aim of silencing them.”

“The country’s ‘anti-fake news’ law completes the country’s ‘repressive armoury’ as it provides the government the power to decide the truthfulness of a news story.”

The anti-fake news law refers, of course, to the Protection from Online Falsehoods and Misinformation Act which was passed in 2019.

The CIVICUS article goes on to discuss the criminal defamation case against The Online Citizen (TOC)’s editor-in-chief Terry Xu and writer Daniel Augustin De Costa over a letter published on the site in September 2018 which condemned government corruption.

The article noted: “Ending the use of legal action, such as criminal defamation which curtails freedom of expression, was one of the recommendations received by Singapore in its Universal Periodic Review.”

It also mentioned several other legal actions that Mr Xu is facing including the defamation case against him and a TOC writer in two separate actions by PM Lee over the same article published in 2019 which repeated allegations by the premier’s siblings regarding a family dispute; as well as contempt of court proceeding over a post about the legal system.

Beyond that, TOC has also been slapped with several correction orders under POFMA, most recently over its coverage of a story about how the police treated an elderly woman who wasn’t wearing a mask.

The story was based on a video that was initially posted by an Instagram user. The user, as well as another website, were issued correction orders as well.

TOC’s application to cancel the correction order was rejected by the Ministry of Home Affairs.

CIVICUS noted, “POFMA has been increasingly used against political parties and critical online media.”

In addition to POFMA, CIVICUS also noted the government’s use of the 2017 Administration of Justice (Protection) Act—“a vaguely worded contempt of court law—to prosecute human rights activists such as Jolovan Wham and human rights lawyer M Ravi over criticism of the courts.

Increased surveillance

Moving on, CIVICUS also noted the increase in surveillance across the island which it says “raises questions on the right to privacy.”

This is in reference to the announcement by Minister of Law and Home Affairs, Mr K Shanmugam that Singapore would double the number of surveillance cameras to more than 200,000 by 2030. On top of that, facial recognition to access services is due to be rolled out as well.

CIVICUS highlighted Singapore’s rank as the 11th most surveilled state in the world according to the 2019 findings by research firm Comparitech.

Use of Official Secrets Act

The article also mentioned the recent arrest of a public servant under the state’s Official Secrets Act (OSA) for allegedly leaking information about the country’s COVID-19 measures ahead of the official announcement.

The police had said that the offence is categorised as “wrongful communication of information” under the law.

CIVICUS pointed: “This is inconsistent with The Johannesburg Principles on National Security, Freedom of Expression and Access to Information which state that no person may be punished on national security grounds for disclosure of information if the disclosure does not actually harm and is not likely to harm a legitimate national security interest.”

“Further, Singapore does not have a freedom of information law, despite ongoing calls for such legislation,” it added.

Solo protests denied by the police

Finally, the CIVICUS article discussed the issue of solo protests in Singapore being disallowed, including a recent case where a Twitter user said he was denied permission to protest outside the Australian High Commission. The protest was meant to be directed at the Australian Prime Minister who is due to visit Singapore.

In that case, the police said in a statement that it hadn’t received an application for a permit. In that same statement, the authorities also reminded the public that organising or participating in an assembly without a permit is a violation of the Public Order Act and that no permits will be provided for assemblies advocating for causes related to other countries.

Beyond that, CIVICUS pointed out that under the Public Order Act, even solo peaceful protests are considered assemblies.

It added that prominent activists such as Jolovan Wham and Seelan Palay have faced charges under this act for their solo protests.

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