Arts community raises concern about proposed changes to Films Act

Proposed amendments to the Films Act include a scheme allowing some video companies to classify video titles, up to PG13 rating. ST PHOTO: KEVIN LIM

SINGAPORE - A petition against a proposed change to the Films Act, which will expand the powers of Info-communications Media Development Authority (IMDA) officers, has attracted nearly 400 signatures, many from the arts community.

The proposed change is among several that the agency has put up for public consultation.

It will allow IMDA officers to enter and inspect a property without a warrant when investigating breaches of the Films Act. These include, for instance, the distribution or public exhibition of films that have not been approved.

The officers will also be able to seize films and equipment if there is reason to suspect that these are evidence of an offence.

Concerned about what he described as a potential overreach, filmmaker Jason Soo started a petition on Monday (Dec 18). It zooms in on Section 23 of the proposed laws, which he said "confer far too much power to IMDA officers".

Responding to queries from The Straits Times, IMDA explained on Tuesday (Dec 19) the need for the changes, pointing out that its officers "have to act quickly to secure evidence of the contraventions while minimising the chances of the suspected offender fleeing the scene".

Currently, laws already allow IMDA officers to enter premises without warrant to search for and seize unlawful films, such as obscene or party political films.

For breaches such as the exhibition of a film that has not been approved, police officers can also carry out enforcement and investigations - generally with warrants.

With the change, IMDA will take on the enforcement and investigation for cases of public exhibition and distribution of films without licence.

The authority wrote in its public consultation document that "the police will only be called on when necessary".

Consultation on the changes began on Dec 4, and was due to end on Dec 15, but was extended by a week. On Tuesday, IMDA announced a further extension - to Dec 30.

Some other proposed amendments to the Films Act include a scheme allowing some video companies to classify video titles, up to PG13 rating, by themselves in line with IMDA guidelines. This is so that content can be made available to consumers sooner, IMDA said in its public consultation documents. A similar self-classification scheme for performances came under fire in 2014 for potentially encouraging self-censorship.

Other proposed changes to the Films Act include the introduction of a video games class licence and update to the scope of films licensing.

Besides Mr Soo, filmmakers from the filmcommunitysg group said that they have been studying the 93-page document and will release a position paper soon. Members of the group include Boo Junfeng, Anthony Chen, Tan Pin Pin and Jasmine Ng.

Mr Soo, who is taking issue with the change giving IMDA officers enforcement powers, said in the preface to his petition that IMDA officers are not trained and "possess no actual experience in managing and de-escalating what could be highly charged and confrontation situations".

"Such scenarios are best handled by skilled, experienced police officers authorised with a proper warrant," he added. His works include the documentary 1987: Untracing The Conspiracy, about detainees arrested over an alleged Marxist plot against the Singapore Government in 1987.

Addressing concerns about training, IMDA said yesterday that its enforcement officers undergo training in investigation and enforcement. Training courses cover, among other areas: powers of entry, search and seizure, collation of evidence, and effecting arrest.

Filmmaker Kirsten Tan, whose debut feature Pop Aye was picked as Singapore's entry to the Academy Awards next year, wrote in a Dec 15 Facebook post: "In theory, with provisions like these, an IMDA officer could enter anyone's home to seize a documentary you are making."

An artist who signed the petition, Mr Ho Rui An, said: "The right to search private property without a warrant goes beyond what is expected of a media regulator."

Speaking to The Straits Times, Mr Soo also lamented the lack of time for the public to to provide feedback. He said the IMDA had hosted members of the film community to a session in June where an early version of the amendments was shown. He asked why members of the public only have 18 days to submit comments.

Chua Chu Kang GRC MP Zaqy Mohamad, who is chairman of the Government Parliamentary Committee for Communications and Information, said: "I can understand the arts community's concern, should IMDA take over the enforcement authority from the police."

"The same level of governance and check and-balance should be put in place, similar to how the police needs a warrant, before action can be taken," he added. "Hopefully, IMDA will look into this deeply."

He also said IMDA officers will likely receive training in managing conflict before they take on their new roles if the changes are passed. He also noted that they are not set in stone as the policy is still under public consultation.

MP Louis Ng (Nee Soon GRC) said he plans to raise concerns about overreach and proper training when the Bill is debated in January.

Join ST's WhatsApp Channel and get the latest news and must-reads.