Curbs on statements about court proceedings should apply equally to Government: Human Rights Watch

The State Courts building at 1 Havelock Square. PHOTO: ST FILE

SINGAPORE - There should be fewer curbs on statements that could prejudge ongoing court proceedings - and the rules should be made equally applicable to the Government and to private citizens, said Human Rights Watch (HRW) on Wednesday (Dec 13).

The Government's discretion to make prejudicial statements about ongoing proceedings should be eliminated, it added, even when the Government determines it is in the public interest to do so. This is because the authorities' perspective could then dominate discussion, resulting in "prejudice to the defendant".

In its first report focusing on Singapore in 12 years, the international non-governmental organisation set out some 60 recommendations, in its call for "restrictions" on individual rights to speech and peaceful assembly to be lifted or amended - to bring laws in line with international standards.

These suggestions include a Freedom of Information law where Government information is presumed to be subject to disclosure, with specific exceptions for those that would damage national security if publicly released. HRW also called for a clear plan and timetable to repeal or amend laws "inconsistent with international human rights standards" with public consultation involving civil society groups.

The 133-page report, which drew on interviews with 34 civil society activists, journalists, lawyers, academics and opposition politicians - as well as news reports and public statements by government officials - looked at laws such as Public Order Act, Sedition Act and those surrounding criminal contempt. It argued that these have been "used to limit individual rights to speech and assembly".

The Straits Times has contacted the authorities for comment.

One example that HRW cited is that of the Administration of Justice (Protection) Bill. It was passed in August last year after a seven-hour debate in Parliament during which some MPs raised worries that it could restrict people's rights to comment freely on ongoing police investigations or court cases.

Questions were also raised then on why Law Society's president Thio Shen Yi was criticised by Law Minister K. Shanmugam for commenting on the Benjamin Lim case - in which a 14-year-old, who was questioned by police in a case of molestation, jumped out of a flat to his death - but public officials could make statements.

Mr Shanmugam had said that there was a need to discuss the matter as public confidence in the police force must be maintained.

On the Bill, he told the parliamentarians that people can continue to speak on matters of public interest as long as they do not prejudice a trial's outcome. Also, the Government can be challenged in court to show why it believes it is in the public interest to comment on an ongoing case. The definition of public interest includes issues involving security, public order, public health or public finances, according to the statutes.

HRW said that the law's "broad restrictions" on discussion of ongoing court matters are "problematic", and called for a narrowing of the law to apply only to those that create a "substantial risk that the course of justice in the proceedings in question will be seriously impeded or prejudiced".

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

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

It also called to limit the discretion that allows the Minister for Home Affairs to ban assemblies on grounds of public interest - to only instances where doing so is necessary to prevent violence or serious public disorder.

The case studies it cited included a recent instance where 17 people are being investigated for participating in a candlelight vigil held ahead of the judicial execution of a drug offender. Among them was activist Jolovan Wham, 37, who was arrested and hauled to court on Nov 29 to face seven charges, including allegedly organising public assemblies without a permit.

Said the report: "Singapore promotes itself as a bustling, modern city-state and a great place to do business.

"Beneath the slick surface of gleaming high-rises, however, it is a repressive place, where the Government severely restricts what can be said, published, performed, read, or watched."

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