Josephine Teo: Stop order won't lead to information blackout

Officers from the Emergency Response Team, Tanglin Division and Ground Response Force from Toa Payoh Neighbourhood Police Centre during a counter-terrorism exercise, on Aug 6, 2016.
Officers from the Emergency Response Team, Tanglin Division and Ground Response Force from Toa Payoh Neighbourhood Police Centre during a counter-terrorism exercise, on Aug 6, 2016. PHOTO: ST FILE

The curbs on communications allowed - under a new law expanding police powers to deal with serious incidents - will not result in an information blackout, Second Minister for Home Affairs Josephine Teo said yesterday.

Selected media outlets and personnel will be allowed to access incident areas even when a communications stop order is issued. The order will not be used to gag innocent parties either, she said.

"If members of the public are acting in good faith to provide information to the authorities but inadvertently breach the (order), we do not intend to take action," Mrs Teo said.

She added that the order does not target civilians caught in a hostage situation trying to reach out to their loved ones.

Mrs Teo was responding to MPs, including Mr Melvin Yong (Tanjong Pagar GRC) and Nominated MP K. Thanaletchimi, who had raised concerns.

The stop order has garnered much attention since the Bill was introduced last month. If activated, it makes it an offence for people, including the media, to film or take pictures of an incident area or to send messages about security operations.

Yesterday, Mr Ang Wei Neng (Jurong GRC) noted that preventing the media from doing its job could lead to "a gap in the documentation of Singapore's history".

Mrs Teo said that the media outlets allowed to access incident areas can record events for subsequent use such as post-incident reporting.

She added that the Home Affairs Ministry had earlier spoken to local media to discuss how it can report the news despite a stop order. She noted that the media had raised similar concerns to MPs and the public.

Pointing to incidents overseas in which terrorists holding hostages could find out about police operations through live telecasts, she said: "We are trying to stop irresponsible communication of ongoing security operations which may endanger lives."

On the argument that people should be allowed to film the scene as long as it was not transmitted, she cautioned that "half measures will not cut it". She added that stop orders may be able to only reduce - but not eradicate - the risk of unauthorised communications.

Mrs Teo also said the order will apply only to target areas and is limited in duration. It will be lifted after security operations are over.

Like other special powers in the Bill, it may last a maximum period of a month. A breach of the order may lead to a maximum of two years in jail, a fine of up to $20,000, or both.

Yesterday, Ms Sylvia Lim (Aljunied GRC) highlighted that footage or photographs taken at the scene of major incidents have enabled the truth to emerge.

In a London Group of 20 summit in 2009, for instance, a man fell and died in the vicinity of a police operation mounted to manage protesters.

Police denied they had an altercation with him until a video proved otherwise, she said, adding that "in any investigation, evidence talks".

Mrs Teo replied that police investigations do not start and end with photo or video evidence, and it is unlikely a stop order would have been issued for a case like the G-20 summit.

Asked by NMP Kok Heng Leun if the stop order would allow police to delete videos showing abuse of powers, Mrs Teo said it would be a criminal offence to dispose of evidence.

Mr Kok also noted that the aim of terrorism is not just fatalities, but the causing of fear and distrust, destabilising society.

"In the aftermath of such an event, it is important that there is enough information for us to piece things together, to verify facts, to dismiss accusations and restore justice if need be... (Such information) can help a lot in the healing of the community," he said.

Seow Bei Yi

A version of this article appeared in the print edition of The Straits Times on March 22, 2018, with the headline 'Josephine Teo: Stop order won't lead to information blackout'. Print Edition | Subscribe