Bill to give police more powers in a terror attack

Under proposal, people may not be allowed to make or send films and photos of incident area

Officers from the police's Emergency Response Team (ERT) during a counter-terrorism readiness exercise at Tampines Central Mall on Oct 17, 2016.
Officers from the police's Emergency Response Team (ERT) during a counter-terrorism readiness exercise at Tampines Central Mall on Oct 17, 2016.PHOTO: ST FILE

A proposed law before Parliament will make it an offence for people to film or take photographs of what is taking place in the vicinity of a terror attack, if a stop order is issued.

Such footage has undermined security operations during these attacks elsewhere, leading Singapore to introduce the Public Order and Safety (Special Powers) Bill that will give the police powers to stop such actions in serious incidents.

The Bill is the latest piece of legislation to deal with the heightened terror threat.

It follows the passing of two laws last year to boost security at large-scale public events and beef up protection of iconic, strategic or large buildings. They are the amendments to the Public Order Act and the new Infrastructure Protection Act.

The proposed legislation will also repeal the 1958 Public Order (Preservation) Act, which gives special powers for dealing with large-scale riots but does not provide for expanded powers when public safety is seriously threatened and there is no large-scale public disorder. An example is after a terror attack when a manhunt for suspects is under way.

A key provision in the proposed laws is the communications stop order, which the police commissioner can issue when authorised by the Home Affairs Minister.

It stops people in an incident area - including journalists and members of the public - from making or communicating films or pictures of the place for a period of time.


They must also stop communicating text or audio messages about ongoing security operations.

Those who ignore the order can face fines of up to $20,000 and a maximum jail term of two years.

In 2015, police operations against a lone terrorist in Paris were shown in a live TV broadcast. The terrorist, who was holding hostages in a deli, was able to watch police officers gathering outside it.

Similarly, in 2008, gunmen in the Mumbai terror attacks could anticipate the next moves of security forces by watching a live broadcast of them preparing to storm the Taj Mahal Palace Hotel.

"In both incidents, there is no doubt the information available to the terrorists made the police operation more difficult... and put the safety of the officers and hostages at greater risk," said the Ministry of Home Affairs in a statement.

The new Bill - introduced before the start of the nine-day debate on Budget 2018 yesterday - also gives police other powers in and around the incident area. These include taking down or disabling unmanned aircraft and autonomous vehicles and vessels; stopping and questioning people and making it an offence if they refuse to give information; and directing building owners to take actions such as closing their premises.

Civilians may also be authorised to help, say, in manning a cordon. But they will have limited powers and cannot use lethal force.

Associate Professor Bilveer Singh of the Centre of Excellence for National Security, in backing the communications stop order, said citizen journalists may lack strategic perspective when spreading information about an incident. Butdeterring such filming could lead to loss of information that may help in police probes. "This is a fine balancing act that needs to be addressed," he said.

Professor Rohan Gunaratna, head of the International Centre for Political Violence and Terrorism Research, stressed the need for the authorities to work with the media. "Media personnel should be trained to understand their reporting should neither sensationalise terrorism nor unwittingly help the terrorists and cause loss of life and property."

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A version of this article appeared in the print edition of The Straits Times on February 28, 2018, with the headline 'Bill to give police more powers in a terror attack'. Subscribe