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When the police gets hold of your Facebook

Kirsten Han photo
Kirsten HanSingapore
When the police gets hold of your Facebook
A police investigation into the alleged breach of election rules in Singapore led to raids on the homes of two Singaporean activists, and the seizure of their electronic devices.

When activists Roy Ngerng and Teo Soh Lung reported to the police headquarters on Wednesday morning, they were probably only expecting a boring interview with the cops, answering questions related to the police report lodged by the Elections Department, accusing them of breaching laws related to election advertising on the eve of Polling Day, also known as 'Cooling-Off Day'.

According to these rules, election advertising is banned so that voters can have a day to consider their options away from the barrage of slogans, rallies and promises, before making their choice the next day. Online news websites – the source of most 'independent' or 'alternative' news in Singapore – are also expected to go silent. The mainstream media, however, widely known to be under the influence of the government in a country ranked 154 in Reporters Without Borders' Press Freedom Index, is allowed to carry on publishing.

The law, though, does state that "the telephonic or electronic transmission by an individual to another individual of the first-mentioned individual’s own political views, on a noncommercial basis" is exempt, making it baffling that two individuals like Ngerng and Teo could be accused of having been in breach. The only explanation the Elections Department could come up with was that both individuals "regularly engage in the propagation, promotion and discussion of political issues" – more a descriptor of citizens exercising their rights rather than an incriminating statement.

Still, Ngerng and Teo presented themselves at the Cantonment Police Complex on Tuesday morning for questioning, as requested by the authorities. Questions were asked regarding specific social media posts: how many 'likes' it received, whether it was a private or public post, whether they felt that the posts put the opposition candidate running in Bukit Batok in a good light, whether they felt that their posts would influence voters' decisions. Some of these questions were silly: with the specific posts downloaded and presented as evidence, the police could clearly see for themselves whether it was public or private, and how many 'likes' it had garnered. 

"I told them I am nobody, I'm not prime minister or anything, I don't know if I influence people's votes," Teo told me. "If I was so powerful the SDP [Singapore Democratic Party] would have won already." [The Singapore Democratic Party lost to the incumbent People's Action Party by over 20 per cent of the vote.]

But the investigation did not end with their interrogations. The police then informed them that they would have to hand over their mobile phone, and that their homes would be raided. When Teo refused to hand over her mobile phone, she was threatened with arrest. Ngerng wanted to speak with a lawyer who had shown up to advise Teo of her rights, but was not allowed to do so.

Seven police officers searched the home in which Teo lives alone. Her desktop, laptop and mobile phone were seized. Meanwhile, Ngerng's two laptops, two hard drives, mobile phone and some memory cards were also confiscated at his home. There was no search warrant or warrant to seize; the police said that there was no need for such warrants as it was all part of the investigation process.

When another lawyer questioned the proportionality of seizing Teo's property, he was told her could be charged for obstructing the investigation.

"I do not remember how long the police were there," Ngerng wrote on his Facebook page. "Two activist friends came to check on me. The police would not let them into my home."

Teo was released from custody, sans electronics, following the search, and remained at home. Ngerng, however, was brought back to Cantonment Police Complex where he was made to access his Facebook account and hand over his passwords to his phone, laptop, Facebook and WordPress accounts. His Facebook archive and activity log was downloaded.

"They pretty much have complete access to my phone. I’m not sure what they’re going to do with the access to my phone," he told me.

The police now have access to both Ngerng and Teo's electronic data. They can see emails, chat logs, WhatsApp and text conversations. They can look up what has been to said to other activists about any of the causes both individuals were working on. As fishing expeditions go – and Ngerng said the police had asked him not just about Cooling-Off Day posts, but other blog posts completely unrelated to the police report filed by the Elections Department – this has been a pretty successful one.

The episode has been condemned by civil society groups such as the Community Action Network (CAN) and Function8, of which Teo is a founding member.

"The police have clearly abused their power of investigation even though both Roy and Soh Lung had never denied, and indeed confirmed at the interview, that they had commented on, and shared postings on Facebook which had been made by others," said Function8 in its statement.

"In our view, it is part of a chain of recent incidents that encroach upon work of civil society which contribute to the legitimate exercise of good citizenship," they added.

"This is police harassment; as Singaporean citizens Teo and Ngerng are entitled to share their personal opinions on political issues. This should not be treated as suspicious, much less a crime warranting long interrogations and searches," said CAN.

The repercussions of Tuesday's police action stretches far beyond investigating errant Facebook posts. It is a gross violation of the privacy of Ngerng and Teo, as well as everyone recorded in their chat logs (full disclosure: I am likely to be one of them). 

And it affects all Singaporeans, too. By going to the extreme of raiding homes and seizing property, the authorities are sending a signal that personal opinions on political matters – even party political matters – are dangerous in Singapore, with frightening implications. Some might wonder if the climate of fear could be slowly lifting in the Southeast Asia city-state, but days like these make the chilling effect very real indeed.

#democracy, #political rights, #politics, #singapore