Rights group calls for fewer curbs on speech, assembly

Human Rights Watch also takes issue with rules on commenting on ongoing court cases

There should be fewer curbs on statements about ongoing court proceedings - and the rules against prejudicial comments should apply equally to the Government and private citizens, said Human Rights Watch (HRW) yesterday.

In its first report on Singapore in 12 years, the non-governmental organisation, based in the United States, took issue with the Government's discretion to comment on court cases when it is deemed to be in the public interest to do so.

It wants the entitlement to be removed, saying the authorities' perspective could dominate discussion and result in "prejudice to the defendant".

This was among about 60 recommendations that HRW set out, as it called for the repeal or amendment of "restrictions" on rights to speech and peaceful assembly here.

Other suggestions include having a Freedom of Information law and a clear plan and timetable to repeal or amend laws "inconsistent with international human rights standards".

The 133-page report, which drew on interviews with 34 activists, journalists, lawyers, academics and opposition politicians - as well as news reports and public statements by government officials - looked at laws such as the Public Order Act, Sedition Act and those on criminal contempt.

These have been "used to limit individual rights to speech and assembly", argued HRW which has about 400 staff members around the world, including lawyers, journalists and academics.

The Straits Times has contacted the authorities for comment.

HRW said the law's "broad restrictions" on discussion of ongoing court matters are "problematic", and called for the law to apply only when there is a "substantial risk" of impeding the course of justice.

One example HRW cited is the Administration of Justice (Protection) Bill, passed in August last year. Some MPs had voiced concerns that it could restrict people's right to comment freely about cases of public interest.

Questions were also raised at that time on why then Law Society president Thio Shen Yi was criticised by Law and Home Affairs Minister K. Shanmugam for commenting on the Benjamin Lim case. The 14-year-old student was found dead at the foot of his block of flats after he was questioned by police about a molestation case.

The case sparked much public interest and discussion at the time among the public, prompting queries about how appropriate some of the comments were .

Explaining why he was speaking on the case, Mr Shanmugam had said there was a need to discuss the matter, as public confidence in the police force must be maintained.

He also said people can continue to speak on matters of public interest as long as they do not prejudice a trial's outcome.

HRW said the law's "broad restrictions" on discussion of ongoing court matters are "problematic", and called for the law to apply only when there is a "substantial risk" of impeding the course of justice.

Another change HRW suggested involves changing a section of the Public Order Act, which requires advance notice of an assembly and the granting of a permit.

It asked for the requirement to be waived for smaller groups, adding that the purpose of giving early notice should be to allow the authorities to "facilitate the assembly", rather than serve as "a de facto request for authorisation".

It also wants the Home Affairs Minister's discretion to ban assemblies on grounds of public interest to be limited to only instances in which it is necessary to prevent violence or serious public disorder.

It cited a recent instance in which 17 people, including activist Jolovan Wham, 37, were investigated for a candlelight vigil held ahead of the hanging of a drug offender.

The report charged that Singapore is a "repressive place", where the Government puts curbs on what can be said, published, performed, read or watched

A version of this article appeared in the print edition of The Straits Times on December 14, 2017, with the headline 'Rights group calls for fewer curbs on speech, assembly'. Print Edition | Subscribe