In early 2013, Lynn Lee, an experienced and award-winning journalist and filmmaker, published excerpts of interviews she had done with two Chinese bus drivers who had taken part in strike action in Singapore. In the interviews, both drivers – against whom the state had initiated criminal proceedings for their participation in the “illegal strike” – claimed that they had been assaulted by police officers.
In a blog post on her website, Lee wrote that she felt “compelled to share” the excerpts as the allegations were serious. She indicated that she had written to both the Ministry of Home Affairs and Singapore Prison Service for comment, but had not received any reply.
What she reaped as a result of her efforts was hours of questioning and the seizure of her property, as part of a police investigation. Months later, the Attorney-General issued her a warning letter, claiming that she had been in contempt of court.
This episode demonstrated the broad reach of the law relating to contempt of court in Singapore, and how it can encroach upon both press freedom and free speech.
It’s little wonder, then, that members of Singaporean civil society are now worrying about the Administration of Justice (Protection) Bill, a piece of legislation introduced by the government as an attempt to “consolidate” contempt law, currently based on common law and legal precedent, in Singapore.
Speaking to the press the day the bill was introduced, Law Minister K Shanmugam assured Singaporeans that the government was not creating a new law on contempt of court, but “crystallising current legal position”. The bill was presented to the public for online feedback – one day after it was tabled and had its first reading in Parliament – as a way to allow “more discussion,” rather than less.
But lawyers and activists reading the bill found little comfort or reassurance. The definition of contempt of court is still broad and vague; for instance, when would someone be deemed as “prejudging” or prejudicing a case? The defences specified in the bill hardly shed more light: “fair and accurate” reporting is said to not be in contempt, but what does that even mean? Lee published verbatim interviews with the bus drivers and allowed the government the right of reply (which they did not respond to), but was still found to have been in contempt anyway.
On the other hand, reporting and campaigning done while teen blogger Amos Yee’s case was before the courts last year – including a story I wrote based largely on an interview with Yee’s mother – were apparently not deemed to be in contempt of court and left alone. What was the difference between these actions and what Lee had done?
The legal tests specified in the bill add to the lack of clarity and fear. In 2010, a High Court judge ruled that the “real risk” test should be applied to contempt of court cases, requiring that the prosecution demonstrate a real risk that a particular statement will prejudice the administration of justice. Although this standard is still applied to the offence of interfering with the administration of justice, the offence of scandalising the judiciary now requires the prosecution to show just a risk, making it easier to get a conviction.
On top of all this, the bill also gives the state more powers, formally setting down that the government is free to comment on ongoing court proceedings as long as it believes it’s in the public interest. The Attorney-General is now also allowed to apply to the High Court for a “non-publication direction” – essentially, a takedown order for any content they believe could possibly prejudice a court proceeding or undermine public confidence in the judiciary. The individual against whom the takedown order is directed need not by informed that an application to the court has been made.
Even commentators outside Singapore need to beware; under the Administration of Justice (Protection) Bill, comments on cases pending in Singapore can be in contempt even if the comment was made outside the country. As long as the comment is accessible by even one member of the public in Singapore, it could be in contempt.
For example, if the Hong Kong Free Press were to run a story about Amos Yee and free speech during his upcoming trial (which begins on 17 August), or a commentary about any litigation involving a citizen or company from Hong Kong in Singapore, that could also be contempt of court, since the website can be accessed by people in Singapore.
The bill is due for its second reading on 15 August. In Singapore, it’s possible for the bill to then proceed to its third reading on the same day, then be passed into law with minimal (if any) amendment.
The campaign Don’t Kena Contempt (of which I am a part) seeks to delay the passage of the bill. Although the government says it carried out public consultation by meeting various stakeholders before introducing the bill, it’s not entirely clear which groups were consulted, and how the feedback from these consultations were considered and dealt with.
For a bill with so many implications on discourse related to matters of public interest, it’s crucial that the public is fully educated and informed, and their input taken into consideration to craft robust legislation.
Kirsten Han is a Singaporean freelance journalist and activist, often covering stories related to social justice, human rights and democracy.