Jolovan Wham held photo-taking session, not public assembly, at State Courts building: Lawyer

Jolovan Wham arriving at the State Courts on Aug 23, 2021. ST PHOTO: KELVIN CHNG

SINGAPORE - Activist Jolovan Wham was simply posing for a photo and not staging a protest or a public assembly when he stood briefly outside the former State Courts building while holding up a sign in 2018, his lawyers contend.

"It does not constitute an offence under the (Public Order Act) because it's not an assembly. It's a photo-taking session, to put things simply," one of his three lawyers, Mr Eugene Thuraisingam, told a district court on Monday (Aug 23).

Speaking at the close of his client's hearing, Mr Thuraisingam said he will also raise, in his submissions, issues related to the right to freedom of expression as guaranteed by Article 14 of the Singapore Constitution as well as whether the prosecution had brought its case against Wham in bad faith.

District Judge Eugene Teo is expected to give his decision on the case in November.

Wham, 41, was charged with an offence under the Public Order Act after allegedly taking part in an illegal assembly at the steps to the main entrance of the former State Courts building in Havelock Square around 9am on Dec 13, 2018.

The State Courts is gazetted as a Prohibited Area under the Public Order Act, with stricter security protocols in place.

Wham was there to attend a court hearing for a criminal defamation case involving The Online Citizen (TOC) editor Xu Yuanchen, also known as Terry Xu, and TOC contributor Daniel De Costa, who had allegedly defamed members of the Singapore Cabinet.

Before entering the building, Wham stood on the steps holding a piece of paper with the words "Drop the charges against Terry Xu and Daniel De Costa" printed on it.

Closed-circuit television (CCTV) camera footage screened in court on Monday showed that Wham held up the sign for about 15 seconds while a woman took a photo of him. Two passers-by were shown walking past Wham while he held up the sign, but they did not stop to look at him.

Wham then put the sign in his bag and entered the building. Shortly afterwards, he posted the photo on his public social media accounts.

The photo was reposted on the HardwareZone forum later that afternoon by a forum user, and a member of the public then lodged a police report anonymously, citing the forum post.

Deputy Public Prosecutors Jane Lim, Niranjan Ranjakunalan and Nikhil Coomaraswamy called seven witnesses to the stand on Monday, including three police officers who had served as investigating officers (IOs) on the case at different times since 2018.

The officers testified that Wham had previously applied for a police permit to stage a one-man assembly outside the State Courts building at 9pm on Dec 9, 2018, but was turned down. Wham did not apply for a permit to hold a public assembly on Dec 13.

During Mr Thuraisingam's cross-examination, the police officers also testified that Wham's actions on Dec 13 did not pose a threat to public order and that he did not disturb anyone or do anything to call attention to himself.

The witnesses also agreed that having a photo taken outside the court building is not, in itself, an offence.

However, Wham's holding of the sign would still constitute an offence even if no photo had been taken, said Assistant Superintendent of Police (ASP) Pek Shun Fu, who was the second investigating officer on the case.

"While he did not specifically draw anyone's attention, I still note that there were passers-by walking around, and there is a possibility that they could have seen what happened. I could not rule out that possibility," ASP Pek said.

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