Stop Defamation Probe of The Online Citizen

The high-handed investigation by the Singapore police of The Online Citizen (TOC) editor Terry Xu, accused of criminal defamation over an article published in September, has set the alarm bells ringing again in a country that is known for stifling independent voices.

We, the undersigned, view this development with extreme concern, noting the unrelenting use of repressive policies to silence free speech.

We view the current crackdown on TOC as being part of a broader and disturbing trend in Southeast Asia in which existing limited freedoms – where they still exist –  are being further suppressed by specific states’ use of laws and regulations that clearly undermine civil and political rights, including freedom of expression, while maintaining a semblance of legitimacy.

On 20 November 2018, police officers raided the homes of Xu and Willy Sun, who wrote the article in question. Their mobile phones, laptops, and other personal effects were seized in an operation that lasted approximately three hours.

Both men were informed that they were being investigated for criminal defamation, an offense that carries a maximum penalty of two-year imprisonment and a fine. Xu was held at the police station and interrogated for eight hours before he was finally released.

In their statements to the media, the police said the investigations were initiated in response to a police report filed by Singapore’s Info-Communications Media Development Authority based on Sun’s article titled, “The Takeaway from Seah Kian Peng’s facebook post.” According to the police, the article “made serious allegations that the Government’s highest officers are corrupt and that the Constitution has been tampered with.”

A free press is essential to any democracy, yet Singapore insists upon criminalizing it along with other independent voices.

Instead of persecuting individuals who ask difficult questions and publish critical views, the government should be more transparent and refute assertions it does not agree with while adhering to the standards of civility and encouraging civil discourse. After all, it is only when citizens enjoy the right to free expression and have access to a free, pluralistic, and independent media that they can demand accountability from those in power.

Singapore is among the Southeast Asian countries that have consistently ranked at the bottom third of the World Press Freedom Index by Reporters Without Borders (RSF), a non-profit international organization that promotes freedom of information and freedom of the press

It is also among 8 out of 11 regional countries whose press freedom status, according to the 2018 Freedom House report, is dubbed ‘not free’.

We believe that the current investigation against TOC is unnecessary and disproportionate, since it had previously complied with the government’s order to take down the alleged offending article on the same day the notice was sent.

Singapore would do well to remember that it is a signatory to the 2012 ASEAN Declaration of Human Rights. Article 23 states: “Every person has the right to freedom of opinion and expression, including freedom to hold opinions without interference and to seek, receive and impart information, whether orally, in writing or through any other medium of that person’s choice.”

While international human rights laws and standards allow for restrictions to be made on free expression, they should be clearly defined and invoked only when such expression incites hate, violence, discrimination and pose significant threats to public order. Criminal penalties for reputational harm do not fall within such limits and should be abolished.

Finally, we urge the Singapore government to cease all investigations of Mr Terry Xu and Mr Willy Sun arising from allegations of criminal defamation as a result of the article in question.

It behooves the city-state to honor its commitment to abide by an important ASEAN instrument for the promotion and protection of human rights, not least of which is the freedom to express oneself without fear of retaliation or legal sanction.

Signed by:

The Community Action Network (Singapore)

Function 8

South East Asian Press Alliance (SEAPA)

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Cease investigations of States Times Review and its editor

The Community Action Network disagrees with the government’s decision to initiate investigations on Mr Alex Tan, the editor of the website States Times Review. We also object to the Media Development Authority’s decision to block access to the website. While we do not approve of articles which contain falsehoods, it is disproportionate for the government to resort to criminal sanctions for speech which does not incite violence, hate and discrimination.

States Times Review was ordered by the Media Development Authority (MDA) to take down an article it published on 5 November titled, “Lee Hsien Loong becomes 1MDB’s key investigation target”. In a press release, the MDA justified the order on the grounds that the article “undermined public confidence in the integrity of the Singapore Government and is objectionable on grounds of public interest.” The Singapore government also requested facebook to take down the article on its site but was refused. This prompted the Law Ministry to issue a statement that “FB (Facebook) cannot be relied upon to filter falsehoods or protect Singapore from a false information campaign…this shows why we need legislation to protect us from deliberate online falsehoods.’

Community Action Network is concerned that any attempt to criminalise ‘fake news’ and force technology companies to take down objectionable content will end up controlling an already restrictive environment for independent and free journalism. The legal definition of ‘fake news’ may end up being too vague to prevent arbitrary interpretation. What is the threshold for what is considered false or true? It is especially worrying in a country like Singapore where the government and ruling party politicians will not hesitate to sue opposition politicians and prosecute critics. Criminalising ‘fake news’ will have a chilling effect and further entrench the stigma of engaging in critical political activities and discourse. It will also give those in power more ammunition to silence views they don’t agree with.

Research this year by political scientists from Princeton, Exeter and Dartmouth universities has shown that even though fake news has a wide reach, its impact is limited. The Singapore government has also not cited any local research to show that the impact of online falsehoods merits the creation of an anti fake news law. At the least, we need to have an empirical understanding of its impact before resorting to criminalising those who publish online falsehoods.

The government has already rebutted STR’s article and its press release was prominent in the mainstream media. Moreover, the fact that the authorities are able to order a take down, initiate criminal proceedings, and block access to the site shows that current provisions are more than sufficient to tackle the problem.

We urge the government to ensure that any legal response to online falsehoods adheres to international free expression standards, including only if it is necessary to ‘prohibit advocacy of hatred on protected grounds that constitutes incitement to violence, discrimination or hostility.’ These principles on how to respond to online falsehoods were elaborated by the United Nations, the Organization for Security and Co-operation in Europe (OSCE), the Organization of American States (OAS), and the African Commission on Human and Peoples’ Rights (ACHPR) in their 2017 Joint Declaration on Freedom of Expression and Fake News, Disinformation and Propaganda. Ultimately, the best way to combat online falsehoods is more transparency, freedom of information, the development of multi stakeholder fact checking websites and increased medial literacy.

Image source: https://www.facebook.com/STReview/photos/a.1599943643557154/1605467913004727/?type=3&theater

JOINT STATEMENT BY THE COMMUNITY ACTION NETWORK AND DEMOSISTO

Prosecuted for Holding a Skype Discussion: Singapore Should Respect the Right to Freedom of Assembly

Singaporean social worker and activist Jolovan Wham will be back in court on October 1, 2018. This time, he’s being tried for organising a Skype discussion with Joshua Wong, a prominent leader of Hong Kong’s Umbrella Movement.

Police are describing the closed-door talk which took place in November 2016, as an “illegal public assembly”. Authorities say they contacted Wham prior to the event to tell him to apply for a permit. Wham did not have enough time to do so, and now faces a fine of up to S$5,000 if he is found guilty.

Whether or not Wham broke the law is a matter for the judges to decide. But commonsense says police should not have been involved and prosecutors should not have charged him to begin with. Skype conversations that take place within the confines of a private space are private matters that should logically, not require permits before they can be carried out.

Freedom of assembly is a fundamental human right. But in Singapore, attempts by citizens to come together for a shared cause are often viewed with suspicion by the government. Protests are only allowed to be held in one location. A single person can constitute an “illegal assembly”. Such restrictive rules have given authorities plenty of leeway to prosecute activists like Wham, but virtually anyone can be a target.

Citizens of a first-world nation should not have to worry about whether or not an indoor event constitutes an “illegal assembly”, or whether or not police permission is required before a Skype conversation can even proceed. Such exchanges are normal in any healthy society. Wham’s discussion with Wong ended peacefully and would not have drawn any further attention if authorities hadn’t decided to act.

Wham is also being prosecuted for refusing to sign his police statement. Wham says he declined because he was not allowed to have copies of the statement. It is puzzling why an accused person should be denied access to such an important document. The policy should be amended.

Wham faces a further two charges for organising “illegal assemblies”. He’s also been charged with “vandalism”, for using scotch-tape to stick two pieces of paper on a train, and another two charges for not signing police statements. If found guilty of these offences, he faces a fine of up to S$5,000 or a jail term of up to three years.

By prosecuting Wham for his involvement in peaceful, non-violent protests and related activities, the Singapore government has only reinforced the perception that it does not respect fundamental rights taken for granted by citizens in other first-world democracies. This is deeply regrettable. Public resources and taxpayers’ money can be put to far better use. This kind of gross over-reaction only serves to reflect the state’s paranoia and inability to trust its own people.

Endorsed by Joshua Wong, Secretary-General, Demosisto, and the following members of Community Action Network Singapore: Lynn Lee, Roy Ngerng, Shelley Thio, Vincent Wijeysingha, Rachel Zeng

MP SEAH KIAN PENG – RETRACT YOUR FACEBOOK POST AND ISSUE AN APOLOGY

We refer to MP Seah Kian Peng’s Facebook post dated 1 September 2018. In it, Mr Seah makes a series of misleading statements about several Singaporeans and the Singapore Democratic Party. Despite repeated reminders from concerned citizens, he has neither amended nor taken down his post. On social media, comments related to Mr Seah’s views have become increasingly inflammatory and dangerous.

Mr Seah claims historian Dr Thum Ping Tjin “invited Dr Mahathir to bring democracy to Singapore.” As proof, Mr Seah posts a screenshot from Dr Thum’s Facebook page. Perhaps the MP didn’t read it, because this is what it says:

“I urged him to take leadership in Southeast Asia for the promotion of democracy, human rights, freedom of expression, and freedom of information. I also expressed hopes for closer relations between the people of Malaysia and Singapore.” 

Nothing in Dr Thum’s post suggests that he’d invited Dr Mahathir to “bring democracy to Singapore”. Journalist Kirsten Han, who was also at the meeting, has also clarified that no such invitation was issued. It is puzzling that Mr Seah should jump to such a conclusion.

Mr Seah also takes issue with a separate post by Dr Thum wishing Malaysians “Selemat Hari Merdeka” and Singaporeans “happy unofficial independence day”. The MP concludes that this means Dr Thum believes “Singapore is part of Malaysia”.

Mr Seah appears to not know his own country’s history. A simple search online shows that Lee Kuan Yew himself declared de facto independence for Singapore on 31 August 1963:

http://eresources.nlb.gov.sg/history/events/41ed30f7-74db-4134-846e-eb031c57f9c5

Dr Thum was merely referencing history when he wished his fellow Singaporeans “happy unofficial independence day”.

In his post, Mr Seah mentions the Singapore Democratic Party. This is bizarre, given that the SDP wasn’t even party to the meeting with Dr Mahathir.

Mr Seah’s Facebook post has incited unwarranted feelings of resentment towards Singaporeans who have done nothing to betray their country. We are deeply disappointed that an elected official and member of the Select Committee on Online Falsehoods is himself propagating misinformation. The MP might have no malicious intent and might even believe he is doing a service to Singapore, but it is clear he has trouble discerning facts from falsehoods. He should not be a member of the Select Committee on Deliberate Online Falsehoods. We call on him to resign, apologise and retract his post immediately.

Chan Wai Han
Joshua Chiang
Emmy Charissa
Vincent Cheng
Desiree Lim Harkins
Adrian Heok
Annie Kwan
Koh Jee Leong
Kai Lam
Lynn Lee
Lee Xian Jie
Celine Lim
Lim Jialiang
Kenneth Lin
Low Yit Leng
Roy Ngerng
Ngiam Shih Tung
Ong Sooi Eng
Pak Geok Choo
Poh Soo Kai
Shree Raaman
Rejini Raman
Alfian Sa’at
Mansura Sajahan
Martyn See
Constance Singam
Jason Soo
Eve Tan
Tan Luo Yi
Tan Tee Seng
Teng Qian Xi
Shelley Thio
Alex Tseng
Wong Souk Yee
Woon Tien Wei
Yap Ching Wi
Terry Xu
Rachel Zeng

Denied Permit to Protest During Trump-Kim Summit

The Community Action Network has been denied a permit to conduct a one person public assembly because it did not make an application 14 working days in advance. Under the Public Order Act, all cause related and political assemblies, even if it involves just one person, requires a permit if they are done outside of Hong Lim Park, the only state sanctioned area for public protests. Failure to do so may result in fines or jail sentences.

As historic peace talks get underway on Sentosa island, we wanted to draw attention to the fact that Sentosa was where former political prisoner Dr Chia Thye Poh was held under house arrest after being “released” from a 23-year detention without trial.

The Public Order Act’s imposition of such onerous conditions runs counter to what is acceptable under international laws and standards. Its purpose is to severely restrict rather than to facilitate the peaceful exercise of our rights to freedom of assembly and expression. Requiring 14 working days prior notification prevents citizens from responding to important social and political issues in a timely way.

The current law should be replaced with one where prior notice with the sole purpose of facilitating a peaceful assembly is required. Permits or notices should not be condition for assemblies involving a small number of people and where major inconveniences to the public are not expected.

The Internal Security Act under which Dr Chia was jailed, continues to be in force today. It is a repressive tool that has been used to quell dissent and take down opponents of the ruling party. CAN believes it has no place in a civilised society.

Singapore cannot claim to be a promoter of peace if the government continues to use the law to oppress its own citizens.

Image acknowledgement: https://www.indymedia.org.uk/en/2008/02/392209.html

 

Press Freedom and Fake News in Singapore

Since its proclamation at the United Nations General Assembly in 1993, World Press Freedom Day has been commemorated on 3 May all over the world each year. According to UNESCO, it is a day to “celebrate the fundamentals of press freedom, to evaluate press freedom around the world, to defend the media from attacks on their independence and to pay tribute to journalists who have lost their lives in the exercise of their profession”. In commemoration of World Press Freedom this year, Community Action Network and Function 8 organised Press Freedom and Fake News in Singapore which took place at Agora on Saturday, 5 May 2018 to a packed audience.

The five speakers spoke in 2 panels, moderated by independent film maker Lynn Lee who is also a member of Community Action Network.

The first panel had Kirsten Han from online news site New Naratif, Daniel Yap who is the former publisher of the now defunct current affairs site The Middle Ground, and Braema Mathi, a former President of human rights group MARUAH. They talked about legal restrictions, foreign funding, the lack of solidarity amongst journalists, and how the perceived divide between mainstream journalism and online journalism have affected media freedom in Singapore.

When asked about the government’s allegations that New Naratif was backed by foreigners with political agendas, in particular its acceptance of a grant from the Open Societies Foundation, Ms Han clarified that New Naratif was meant to be a website covering news and opinions on South East Asia, and there will be donors and members who are from the region. “It doesn’t make sense to have only members who are Singaporeans for a site that covers the region,” she said. In addition, the lack of grants for independent journalism or any forms of human rights work provided locally and the importance of respecting freelancers and their professionalism was the factor that led to the acceptance of the grant. “Nobody should be expected to work for free… We decided that that is more important to us to be responsible for our freelancers so that we can keep producing professional level content for readers.”

“Funding was a major consideration at The Middle Ground as well,” shared Mr Yap. Despite having the initial capital to operate a fairly sizeable operation, The Middle Ground closed because they were not able to sustain it financially. Mr Yap pointed to IMDA’s requirement for details of all donors, regardless of the amount donated, to be provided when the website held an open call for patrons. “This had definitely created a barrier,” he said. Furthermore, one needs to find ways to convince private entities that they would benefit from investing in independent media initiatives, which isn’t always easy. He agreed that there will always be willing donors, but there aren’t enough donors to sustain an ecosystem of journalism that is robust with diversity in opinions, models and types of publication.

Responding to the question about why Singapore is “so allergic to foreign funding,” Ms Mathi said, “They are trying to ensure that none of us are going to be influenced by any agenda perceived or real, coming from any foreign source.”  She added that there seem to be a sentiment that foreign parties only wish to influence the political dynamics in a country when “in truth, there are many other ways in which an influence can take place,” such as through the economy, culture, and the environment.” Making a salient point about the lack of funding and how we can overcome that, Ms Mathi said “How long can one work for free? It is definitely a togetherness, and solidarity as Kirsten kept saying, not only within the profession or within the aspirants to the profession but for everyone to come together to say that I believe in it, I am willing to put the money in, no questions asked because there is a trust I am giving you. I think that’s important.”

On the second panel, Dr Thum Ping-tjin and Teo Soh Lung spoke about Fake News and the Mainstream Media in Singapore. They talked about why they participated in the the Select Committee consultations on Deliberate Online Falsehoods, in which Dr Thum was questioned for 6 hours by Home Affairs and Law Minister Mr K Shanmugam, and what they meant when they said that the government had participated in generating fake news.

Despite being aware that the Select Committee was a public exercise to legitimise the eventual passing of the legislation, Dr Thum said that it was an opportunity for opinions to be heard. “If the government offers you a chance to be part of a democratic process, you have to take it. If you don’t take it, then they say ‘Well why should we give you any sort of democratic consultation in the future?’” However he felt that what happened during his hearing delegitimised the process. He also expressed disappointment at how the discussion was only focused on some minor points in his submission and how the Select Committee hearing and the events following it were meant to demonise him and his reputation. He expressed his concern, which was also included in his submission, that in the event the legislation on fake news gets passed, it might not include adequate details on how to deal with the event if fake news is produced by the government in future. “What happens if someone like Donald Trump becomes a Prime Minister? How do we stop that person? That is a real concern for me.”

Dr Thum also took the opportunity to run through the details behind the open letter signed by 284 academics, in response to a question from the audience. He said that it was an act of solidarity organised by Dr Lee Jones, a former colleague who is now at Queen Mary University of London who had approached him to ask how he could help.

“I said, ‘Do what you see best, do what you see fit,’ ” said Dr Thum. He further clarified that his involvement was chiefly to provide Dr Jones with contact details of academics who he is acquainted with. “But of course he did contact me to make sure it wasn’t going to make things worse for me.” On the significance of the fact that there were more foreign signatories, Dr Thum attributed it to the possibility of self censorship. He said “I was working at NUS and I was told by someone in confidence that I can’t work in Singapore anymore. Now if that can happen to me, it can happen to everyone else and so I am not surprised that people who are working in Singapore experience that fear and exercise self censorship.”

Explaining why she participated in the Select Committee hearings, Ms Teo said “Function 8 did a submission, and well we volunteered to appear if we would be called. And we did this submission because of all the excitement of Kirsten and PJ, and CAN. Everybody was so excited to get into this democratic mode” said Ms Teo.

Being a former detainee of Operation Spectrum which happened in 1987, she described how the government and the media worked together to generate falsehoods about the detainees’ intentions behind their work in the community. “We were there in the cold room not knowing that these things were in our newspapers,” she said. Had she known about the publication of these allegations, she would have a very different view of what happened and might not have “cooperated so nicely.” She told the audience that she did not know what a Marxist was at the time of her arrest.

“I’m that ignorant,” she said. She also revealed that she had asked her case office “Mr Lim, what is Communist United Front?” after reading the Grounds of Detention which mentioned that she was using the Communist United Front tactics to try and subvert the government using violent means. “He was shocked that I didn’t even know what this term means.”

Besides her own experience, Ms Teo added that the government has continued to maintain allegations against former detainees in their public statements as recent as 2011, claiming that these detainees were detained for engaging in subversive activities. To date, the government continues to deny any demands of fair trials for the former detainees, and have stood by the allegations that they were rightly detained.

Civil society activists criticise Singapore’s Select Committee hearings

Open public consultations are a rarity under Singapore’s current administration. As such, when the Select Committee on Deliberate Online Falsehoods solicited submissions from the public, we engaged in good faith.

We were concerned that responses to “fake news” could potentially infringe upon Singaporeans’ freedom of expression or trigger unintended negative consequences and thus made submissions to that effect. When invited to give oral evidence before the Committee, we did our best to accommodate the Committee despite multiple, sometimes last-minute, scheduling changes.

However, the hearings were hardly open or consultative.

  1. The Select Committee did not adhere to its own Terms of Reference.

    The Committee’s Terms of Reference are to examine and report on:
    (a) the phenomenon of using digital technology to deliberately spread falsehoods online;
    (b) the motivations and reasons for the spreading of such falsehoods, and the types of individuals and entities, both local and foreign, which engage in such activity;
    (c) the consequences that the spread of online falsehoods can have on Singapore society, including to our institutions and democratic processes; and

(d) how Singapore can prevent and combat online falsehoods, including:

(i) the principles that should guide Singapore’s response; and

(ii) any specific measures, including legislation, that should be taken.

 Dr Thum Ping Tjin was questioned for six hours before the Select Committee over his work and expertise on Singapore history and whether there was evidence of a Communist United Front conspiracy in the 1950s and 1960s. Although he had made specific recommendations on measures that should be taken to combat online falsehoods, he was unable to address them during the session.

Ms Kirsten Han was questioned over an article she had written for an online news publication. It was suggested that she had presented a misleading picture within the article. It was not clear how this was relevant to the Select Committee’s Terms of Reference. The exchange ended with Committee member Edwin Tong issuing a veiled threat that Ms Han had “not yet” been sued or jailed.

The international NGO Human Rights Watch was first invited to give oral evidence on the issue of Deliberate Online Falsehoods. It was later told that it would have to defend its report on freedom of expression in Singapore, although this is not within the Terms of Reference of the Select Committee. The justification given was that submissions such as the one made by the PAP Policy Forum had alleged that the report was a “deliberate falsehood”. We note that the PAP Policy Forum’s entire submission was dedicated to discrediting the HRW report rather than discussing the measures that could be taken against deliberate online falsehoods.

  1. The Select Committee did not appear to be interested in soliciting our views.

Numerous leading questions were asked. Members of the Select Committee repeatedly insisted on yes or no answers to their questions, despite repeatedly being told of the importance of context and nuance.

Despite being questioned for six hours, Dr Thum Ping Tjin was not asked to address points in his written submission regarding deliberate online falsehoods.

Mr Jolovan Wham was made to wait for six hours before his session on behalf of the Community Action Network (CAN), which lasted less than 10 minutes. He was unable to expand on the views that presented in its written submission.

  1. Articles were presented and selectively quoted in ways that were sometimes misleading.

For example, Mr Edwin Tong quoted the first three paragraphs of an article (https://www.theguardian.com/politics/2011/sep/20/mixed-results-blairs-dangerous-act) to question Ms Kirsten Han over the Freedom of Information Act. In those paragraphs, former UK Prime Minister Tony Blair described the Freedom of Information Act as “dangerous”.

However, the rest of the article presents a different picture. It is thus puzzling why the article was used in such a way; since it was meant to be a process of consultation, it would have been more appropriate to engage with the spirit of the article rather than use an unrepresentative portion of the piece to question a witness.

  1. Following appearances before the Select Committee, some submissions were grossly misrepresented within the official Summary of Evidence.In advocating for the introduction of a Freedom of Information Act, Ms Kirsten Han specifically stated that the government will still be able to argue for non-disclosure and the confidentiality of particular documents on legitimate national security grounds. However, the summary stated that “she was of the view that transparency should be valued, even if such legislation could compromise national security and waste resources.” Other points were also similarly misrepresented.

    Mr Jolovan Wham was stated in the summary as having said that “there is no evidence of online falsehoods.” This is not true. What Mr Wham had actually said was that there was no empirical evidence that online falsehoods have a significant impact on Singapore society.

Complaints have been lodged by Ms Kirsten Han, Mr Jolovan Wham and Mr Terry Xu regarding the way their submissions have been represented in the Summary of Evidence. Despite this, the Summary of Evidence has not yet been amended.

We attended the open hearings to share our views and contribute to the body of evidence that the Select Committee should consider for their report. We did not expect to be harangued, harassed, threatened and misrepresented.

We are concerned that such proceedings would only serve to perpetuate suspicions that a decision has already been made and that the process was not genuine. This could potentially undermine public trust—a key factor in the fight against disinformation campaigns.

We reiterate our stance that measures to deal with this issue should not come in the form of further censorship or state regulation of content. Instead, we call for a more open and transparent society in which citizens are provided comprehensive media literacy and political education. We reiterate our call for the introduction of a Freedom of Information Act, and for current laws that curb freedom of expression to be reviewed.

Signed:

Community Action Network

Kirsten Han

Thum Ping Tjin

Terry Xu

Function 8

 

Image source: https://www.channelnewsasia.com/news/singapore/tackle-deliberate-online-falsehoods-look-beyond-legislation-10070876