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#JournalismIsNotACrime: Stand with New Naratif against harassment of independent journalists

This post was originally published on the Coconet website.

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New Naratif
Poster and featured image by New Naratif.

 

Since July 2020, the independent news organisation New Naratif has been under attack by the Singaporean government in for allegedly breaking the Parliamentary Elections Act by boosting elections-related Facebook posts containing during the previous Singaporean election. New Naratif has stated that, “the Prime Minister’s Office is abusing the law to attack us as part of a long-standing campaign of intimidation and harassment”.

Dr. Thum Ping Tjin, New Naratif founder and managing director, has been detained twice by the police related to this case: the first time on September 21 last year and the second just this March 5. His laptop was confiscated after the first round of questioning, and the government has yet to return it.

For more information on the case against New Naratif, you can check out their website page detailing the timeline of events and its defence against the Singapore government’s claims. You can also follow New Naratif on their social media accounts for more timely updates.

Additionally, Coconet.social is republishing the statement by international civil society organisations demanding that the government drop the charges against New Naratif. The statement was first published on October 2, 2020. (Access the original statement here.)

 

[Joint Statement] Singapore: Drop police report against independent media outlet New Naratif

We, the undersigned civil society organizations, urge the government of Singapore to order the Elections Department (ELD) to immediately withdraw its police report against New Naratif, and to cease abusing the law to harass critical voices and independent journalists.

On 18 September 2020, Singapore’s Elections Department released a press statement in which it stated that it had filed a police report against the independent online media outlet New Naratif for “illegal conduct of election activity” for alleged publication of five paid advertisements on the social media platform Facebook, without the written authorization of a candidate or his election agent during the General Election of July 2020.

On 18 September, PJ Thum, New Naratif’s Founder and Managing Director, was notified that he would need to report to the police for questioning, and on 21 September he reported to Clementi Police Station, where he was subjected to questioning for four and a half hours. The police also accompanied him to his home and seized his laptop.

While the Elections Department’s statement does not specify which Facebook posts were allegedly illegally advertised, on 3 July it issued a statement in which it directed Facebook to “remove unauthorised paid Internet Election Advertising.” Following the statement, New Naratif received pro-forma emails from Facebook stating that the following posts did not comply with their advertising policy:

  • satirical video advertizing a perfume called “Discretion” to denounce the abuse of broadly-worded laws by Singapore’s Prime Minister;
  • a post compiling articles critical of the ruling People’s Action Party;
  • a post compiling articles about the lack of transparency and accountability in Singapore’s government;
  • video explaining how the use of the Protection from Online Falsehoods and Manipulation Act (POFMA) can “have devastating consequences” in times of elections; and
  • post compiling articles about racial discrimination in Singapore.

The posts remain online but according to New Naratif they did not re-boost them.

Under Section 83(2) of Singapore’s Parliamentary Elections Act (PEA), the conduct of any election activity requires prior written authority signed by a candidate or his election agent. Section 83(8) stipulates that “election activity” includes any activity “which is done for the purpose of promoting or procuring the electoral success at any election for one or more identifiable political parties, candidates or groups of candidates; or prejudicing the electoral prospects of other political parties, candidates or groups of candidates at the election.” Any person convicted of such offence may be liable to a fine of up to $2,000 and/or imprisonment for up to 12 months.

Under this provision the scope of what can amount to election activity is extremely broad. Virtually any act of information dissemination or awareness-raising relating to key issues of public interest conducted in the lead-up to or during an election can fall under the overbroad scope of “promoting electoral success” or “prejudicing electoral prospects,” and must therefore receive prior written authorization. The provision is so vague that it does not allow for individuals to be able to adequately predict what activity could fall foul of the law, while allowing the Elections Department to control, censor and potentially criminalize any political speech and discussion during the election period.

According to international human rights law, all restrictions on freedom of expression should be provided for by clear, detailed and well-defined laws; be imposed to serve a legitimate aim, namely to protect the rights and reputation of others, national security, public order, public health or public morals; and restrictions must be both necessary and proportionate to achieve the defined legitimate aim. The PEA does not meet these requirements.

The right to freedom of expression is crucial during elections, which should be guaranteed including through free media, freedom to discuss and debate public affairs, the right to hold peaceful assemblies and freedom of association, and to promulgate, receive and engage in a plurality of  political ideas and viewpoints through free, balanced and fair election campaigning and advertising.

Particularly within the context of Singapore, where the election campaign period often lasts only for days or a couple of weeks this provision allows for censuring of independent media outlets crucial to facilitate information and dialogue on key issues of public interest within a narrow period during which it is most pertinent to people in Singapore prior to the casting of their votes

Furthermore, the law is particularly problematic as the Elections Department is not an independent body but is part of the Prime Minister’s Office. This allows for discriminate advantage to be given by the ELD, which answers to the Prime Minister, to information, expression and opinions expressed in line with or favourable to the ruling party, rather than politically opposing viewpoints.

Our organizations are further concerned that the latest police report and police summons received by New Naratif follow a well-documented pattern of Singaporean authorities using vague and broadly-worded laws to unduly restrict the right to freedom of expression, and harass human rights defenders, independent journalists, members of the political opposition and ordinary individuals with a view towards deterring critical dissent of the government.

We therefore call on the Singapore authorities to:

  • Order the Elections Department to withdraw the police report against New Naratif;
  • Repeal or substantially amend all repressive laws that curtail the rights to freedom of expression, association and peaceful assembly, and put in place adequate legal mechanisms and procedures to ensure that these rights are enjoyed by all without discrimination and not subject to unlawful restrictions; and
  • End the intimidation and harassment of human rights defenders, including through the abuse of the legal system, and ensure they can pursue their human rights work without fear of reprisals in accordance with international human rights law.

 

 Signatories:

  1. Amnesty International
  2. Article 19
  3. ASEAN Parliamentarians for Human Rights
  4. CIVICUS
  5. FORUM-ASIA
  6. Human Rights Watch
  7. Scholars at Risk

 

New Naratif: A movement for democracy, freedom of expression, and freedom of information in Southeast Asia. Learn more at newnaratif.com/hello.

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