The contempt of court bill will hurt independent journalism in Singapore
NOTE: I am a member of the Don't Kena Contempt campaign, which highlights troubling aspects of the Administration of Justice (Protection) Bill and calls for more extensive public consultation and amendments to the Bill.
The death penalty. The systemic exploitation of migrant workers. Gerrymandering in the general elections. Broad police powers. Due process. Access to justice.
These are just some of the issues that journalists in Singapore either can’t or won’t cover or discuss (publicly, anyway), because of legislation and power structures that keep the mainstream media under the establishment's thumb. That’s why bloggers and ‘alternative’ independent platforms are often seen as plugging a big hole in the local media landscape.
It’s not an easy job to take on, unless one has generous investors. Funding and revenue is a perennial problem – both SIX-SIX.com and Inconvenient Questions ceased their operations this year for this reason. Access is another; bloggers, online platforms and freelance journalists like myself don’t get media accreditation from the Ministry of Communications and Information (MCI), which restricts our ability to attend press conferences and briefings, or even to receive press statements from the government (until after the mainstream media has got them). Then there are the regulations, requiring online news sites to put down deposits of $50,000, or at least declare that they accept no foreign funding whatsoever – a measure ostensibly to keep local politics in the local domain, but which has the practical effect of ensuring that these independent platforms will always be struggling for resources and sustainability.
Still, there’s always been Singaporeans who have chosen to plod on despite – or perhaps in spite of – these obstacles. In the years since I started getting more involved in civil society and writing about my country, I’ve met people who have sacrificed far more than time and money to cover under-reported stories and keep independent platforms afloat.
But a new challenge has surfaced, and its impact on public discourse cannot be underestimated.
The Administration of Justice (Protection) Bill was first introduced on 11 July this year. It will have its second reading on Monday, 15 August. Although a petition has been submitted to Parliament, and three Nominated Members of Parliament are tabling amendments – what does it say about Singaporean law-making that the tabling of amendments to a bill is considered ‘unusual’? – it is possible that the bill could still be passed into law fairly soon. In fact, it could very well be passed into law on Monday itself.
The passage of this Bill into law will be a harsh blow to independent journalism and commentary in Singapore. Currently based on legal precedent, contempt law in Singapore is already applied in vague and arbitrary ways. The Bill enshrines this power of the state into formal legislation, and more.
It’s not mere paranoia to say that broad contempt law would affect journalism in Singapore. Filmmaker Lynn Lee discovered this the hard way in 2013, when she published excerpts of interviews with two SMRT bus drivers, in which they alleged that they had been beaten and threatened during police interrogation. It was a matter of public interest for Singaporeans to know that their law enforcement officers have been accused of police brutality, yet it led to Lee being investigated, her electronic devices confiscated and searched with a fine-tooth comb in a worrying violation of personal privacy. Lee later received a letter from the Attorney-General’s Chambers stating categorically that she had been in contempt of court, despite choosing not to initiate proceedings in court so that the charge could be confirmed by a judge.
Lee’s experience suggests to journalists like myself that practices considered to be standard journalism elsewhere could be a crime in Singapore. But it’s still unclear when one has crossed the line.
Last year, in the thick of Amos Yee’s trial, I wrote an article for The Online Citizen based on an exclusive interview I had with his mother. In it, she questioned the court’s decision to further remand her son for psychiatric assessment, and lamented the change she had observed in him.
There was no charge of contempt in this case. So when is journalism in contempt of court? The Bill merely refers to publications that “prejudges” an issue, or “poses a risk” of undermining public confidence. Even trained lawyers have said that such language is overly broad.
The Bill does provide defences, saying that articles that are “fair and accurate” and published in “good faith” will not be deemed in contempt of court. This provision would be a relief, if only we knew what the terms “fair and accurate” and “good faith” mean in a Singaporean context.
For instance, an article that does not carry “both sides” (as if there are only ever two sides) of an argument could be accused of not being fair. Yet how do independent journalists, news websites and bloggers feature input from both sides when state organs consistently fail to respond to their queries? Lee had written to both the Ministry of Home Affairs and the Singapore Prison Service before she published the interviews with the bus drivers, but received no response. The Online Citizen, too, regularly writes in to government ministries to offer them the right of reply to its stories, but very rarely hears back. I myself have engaged in tragically one-sided correspondences with the state.
Spiking a story simply because of the state’s failure to respond would mean suppressing something that’s of public interest. Yet publishing the story without input from the state – or access to the data that they have – could trigger accusations of being unfair or inaccurate, thus removing a defence to contempt.
Furthermore, the Bill specifically allows the government to comment on ongoing cases as long as they believe it’s in the public interest to do so. There appears to be no check on whether such a belief is legitimate or not, which suggests the government would basically have carte blanche to say what they like and claim public interest.
This provision further tilts the playing field in an already-unequal space. It allows the government to set the tone while others have to either remain silent or risk criminal charges. In a context where the mainstream media already skews towards the establishment, setting down this inequality in law is simply allowing the government even more power to dominate any discussion of a pending case.
As we can see from our dismal Press Freedom Index rankings every year, the media landscape in Singapore is already in a bad shape. This has implications extending far beyond journalists’ woes; it impacts accountability, transparency, education and ultimately democracy in Singapore. When vaguely-worded bills like the Administration of Justice (Protection) Bill are passed into law, the powerful win at the expense of everyone else.