Singapore downgraded in global human rights report as assault on free speech continues8 December, 2021
- Singapore downgraded to second-worst category, ‘repressed’
- Concerns about free speech, press freedom and the right to protest
- Top violation in Asia-Pacific in 2021: use of restrictive laws
Singapore has been downgraded from ‘obstructed’ to ‘repressed’ in a new report by the CIVICUS Monitor, a global research collaboration that rates and tracks fundamental freedoms in 197 countries and territories. The report, People Power Under Attack 2021, says restrictions on free speech, the curtailment of media freedoms, and the use of overly broad and ambiguous laws to restrict activism, led to the downgrade.
A ‘repressed’ rating means civic freedoms, including the freedoms of expression, assembly and association, are significantly constrained in Singapore. It is the second-worst rating a country can receive by the CIVICUS Monitor, and other repressed countries include Russia, Afghanistan, Pakistan and Myanmar.
Civic rights violations have sharply increased in Singapore this year, especially rights relating to free speech. The 2019 Protection from Online Falsehoods and Manipulation Act (POFMA), an ‘anti-fake news’ law, has been used to harass the political opposition, activists and journalists, and allowed the government to impose its own narrative of events.
Defamation has become a popular way to silence reporters, and press freedoms are increasingly under threat in Singapore. Singaporean Prime Minister Lee Hsien Loong has a reputation for suing journalists and was included in a list of “Press Freedom Predators” in July. Blogger Leong Sze Hian and The Online Citizen editor Terry Xu were slapped with hefty fines after publishing content relating to government corruption, and under Singapore’s Penal Code, criminal defamation can result in a two-year jail sentence.
The 2017 Administration of Justice (Protection) Act, a vaguely worded contempt of court law, has also been used to prosecute human rights defenders for criticism of the courts, under the guise of protecting the judicial system.
Ending the use of legal action to quash freedom of expression is just one recommendation from the United Nation Human Rights Council that has been rejected by Singapore. This year, the country has fully accepted only four of the 21 recommendations on civic freedoms from the UN, highlighting the country’s ongoing failure to address restrictions on free speech and the right to protest.
The police have continued the use of the draconian 2009 Public Order Act to harass and investigate activists and critics for organising peaceful gatherings. In June, the police stopped a solo protest outside the Australian Embassy stating they had not received a permit. In February, activist Jolovan Wham - who has faced systematic persecution for his activism - was convicted for two protests against a draconian security law and against the death penalty. In January, police arrested three activists who were protesting peacefully against transphobia and LGBTQI+ discrimination in the education system.
“Despite its claims to be a democracy, the Singaporean government has systematically chipped away at fundamental freedoms using ambiguous and overly broad legislation, such as on defamation, the Protection Against Online Falsehoods and Manipulation Act (POFMA) and the Public Order Act, to suppress activism and muzzle free speech. The downgrade in its civic space ratings highlights this worrying deterioration,” said Josef Benedict, Asia-Pacific Civic Space Researcher for CIVICUS.
A new Foreign Interference (Countermeasures) Act (FICA), introduced on 4 October provides the Minister of Home Affairs with a wide range of tools to target individuals who act ‘on behalf of a foreign principal’ and towards a political end. This includes the power to remove or disable any online content - undermining the right to freedom of expression. It also imposes onerous reporting obligations for those designated as ‘politically significant persons’. As a result, almost any form of expression and association relating to politics, social justice or other matters of public interest in Singapore may be ensnarled within the ambit of the legislation.
FICA also provides no mechanism for independent judicial oversight or provision of remedy where human rights violations occur as a result of the enforcement of its provisions. The law thus fails to provide for the least intrusive mechanisms to achieve its stated aim of protecting national security while greatly enhancing the risk of executive abuse. The penalties under FICA are disproportionate. The most severe penalties are a fine of up to 100,000 Singapore dollars (USD 74,000) and/or imprisonment for up to 14 years.
“The Foreign Interference (Countermeasures) Act is another chilling law that could be used against dissenting voices and to restrict fundamental freedoms under the pretext of protecting national sovereignty. The law will also serve to increase self-censorship that has been prevalent in Singapore, and to stifle genuine public debate on a wide range of public policy issues in collaboration with the international community,” said Benedict.
The use of restrictive laws to silence dissent and curb activism is the most prevalent civic rights violation in Asia-Pacific in 2021.
Over twenty organisations collaborate on the CIVICUS Monitor, providing evidence and research that help us target countries where civic freedoms are at risk. The Monitor has posted more than 550 civic space updates in the last year, which are analysed in People Power Under Attack 2021.
Civic freedoms in 197 countries and territories are categorised as either closed, repressed, obstructed, narrowed or open, based on a methodology that combines several sources of data on the freedoms of association, peaceful assembly and expression.
Singapore is now rated ‘repressed’ on the CIVICUS Monitor. There are 48 other countries with this rating (see all). Visit Singapore’s homepage on the CIVICUS Monitor for more information and check back regularly for the latest updates.
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