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)

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.

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