Communications blackout: Call to use law judiciously

But experts agree proposed Bill to ban filming or texting in security situations is necessary

While a proposed law to ban communications in the vicinity of an ongoing serious incident is necessary, it should be used judiciously, say experts.

A key provision of the Public Order and Safety (Special Powers) Bill is to prevent people - including journalists and bystanders - from filming or taking photographs that can undermine security operations - for instance, during terror attacks. Communication via text or audio messages about ongoing security operations will also be halted when a stop order is issued.

Associate Professor Andrew Tan of the Department of Security Studies and Criminology at Macquarie University in Sydney said such a law will protect the tactical integrity of counter-terrorism operations.

"You don't want terrorists seeing what counter-terrorism officers are doing, nor do you want terrorists and their sympathisers to film such events for propaganda purposes," said Prof Tan.

In pushing for the law, the Home Affairs Ministry (MHA) cited the 2015 terrorist attack in a Jewish supermarket in Paris and the 2008 Mumbai terror attacks, saying live news broadcasts of security operations in both instances made police operations more difficult and put the safety of officers and hostages at risk.

But even before these attacks, there was the 1972 Munich Olympic massacre where live television images alerted the hostage-takers as German police officers were about to storm the Olympic village building where the hostages were held.

Associate research fellow Nur Azlin Yasin, from Singapore's International Centre for Political Violence and Terrorism Research, said: "These events have shown that live broadcasting of an incident can provide information to adversaries and will jeopardise secrecy of rescue operations."

MHA said the proposed law is in the light of the heightened terror threat and would give police necessary powers to deal with serious public order and safety incidents.

But international media watch groups, including Reporters Without Borders (RSF), criticised the move. "No one disputes the need for special measures in the event of a terrorist attack, but it is not the ministry's job to decide what journalists can broadcast or publish," said head of RSF's Asia-Pacific desk Daniel Bastard.

He said Singapore should look into creating a code of conduct for media coverage of such incidents, instead of introducing a law. Such a code was introduced in France following the 2015 attacks in Paris.

But Nanyang Technological University communications professor Ang Peng Hwa said RSF's suggestion is relevant for Western countries where there are strong laws against government regulation of the press.

"(In Western countries) media companies come up with their own internal code of ethics. In Singapore we don't have such a practice, because we are regulated by the government," said Dr Ang, adding that legislating a communications blackout might not differ too much from the media practising self-regulation.

Media law expert Mark Cenite said there is still a need to closely examine the full scope of police powers under the proposed law, which has described a sit-down demonstration where publicly accessible paths in the central business district are occupied as a "serious incident". Said Dr Cenite: "(This) sounds like a description of Hong Kong's umbrella movement protests (in 2014). This law will expand measures that could be taken to control such a protest, communication about it, and investigation of it."

Dr Ang said the law should be "narrowly" targeted to deter members of public who might try to live-stream an ongoing incident. He noted that bystander footage has also aided investigations, like when suspects in the 2013 Boston Marathon bombings were identified with the help of a spectator's photo.

"If the law is broadly targeting, where potentially helpful content is deemed to be in breach of the law, then that's too much," he said. In response to forum letters conveying concerns over the Bill, MHA spokesman Sunny Lee said a communications stop order will be conveyed to the public and when it is in force, the public can still submit information to the police via the 999 hotline, or through the iWitness and SGSecure mobile applications.

The police will also not take action against those caught up in the incident who made such communications, like people trapped at the incident location trying to get messages out, he added.

A version of this article appeared in the print edition of The Straits Times on March 09, 2018, with the headline 'Communications blackout: Call to use law judiciously'. Print Edition | Subscribe