Activists are warning that Singapore’s proposed contempt of court law, which seeks to promote the independence of the judiciary, threatens to further undermine free speech in the prosperous city state.
The Singapore Parliament first tackled the Administration of Justice (Protection) bill last July 11, and it will resume deliberations on August 15. The government has clarified that the bill merely consolidates various rulings with respect to prejudicing court matters, disobeying court orders, and scandalizing the courts.
However, the bill imposes a severe penalty of $100,000 or a jail term of three years, or both, for individuals found guilty of disrespecting the courts.
Critics of the bill are wary of the vague definition of contempt of court. They are also concerned about some overly broad provisions that could be arbitrarily used to harass and detain activists. For example, the bill defines contempt of court as any action that “poses a risk that public confidence in the administration of justice would be undermined.”
For the Community Action Network, this definition is problematic.
“The Bill says you are in contempt of court if what you say or do has a ‘real risk of prejudice’ to the outcome of the case. You are also in contempt if your ‘motives’ are found to be ‘improper’ But what does all this really mean in practice?” the group said.
The group adds that if enacted into the law, the bill could restrict the work of advocacy groups.
“This new law will end up stifling civil society advocates, many of whom base their campaigns on injustices suffered by vulnerable individuals. How can we as social change makers even launch our campaigns, [and] start the process of reform when such a blunt instrument hangs over our heads?”
The scope of the bill is not limited to statements published by traditional media. A Facebook comment deemed insulting to the court can be used as an evidence against an Internet user because the bill expands the definition of “publication” to the “dissemination, distribution, exhibition, provision or communication by oral, visual, written, electronic or other means to the public at large or a member of the public.”
The Community Action Network explains how this provision will affect Internet users in Singapore. “This means that even if you don’t publish the offending the article, but it was published by someone else in another country, you could be in contempt of court simply by sharing an article on Facebook and Twitter.”
Critics are also concerned by a provision that authorizes the police to detain individuals suspected of maligning the courts, especially since the powers given to authorities seem to be excessive. For example, an individual can be cited for contempt even if he or she made an offensive statement during a private conversation. Equally troubling for some groups is the fact that contempt is already applicable from the time the police start investigating a case, and not only after the formal commencement of court proceedings.
Proponents of the bill might argue that the proposed law does not criminalize the right of the public to comment on important political matters. An individual is not guilty of contempt if his or her statement is “fair and accurate” and delivered in “good faith.” But critics were quick to point out that authorities can interpret this provision in various unjust ways. For example, a news story can be deemed malicious, unfair, and accurate if it does not report the perspective of all stakeholders.
The statements of Law Minister K. Shanmugam didn’t help in assuaging the numerous concerns of activists.
“Contempt laws do not affect discussions on policies, and people are free to criticize judgments after a trial has concluded. However, what is ‘not right’ is the public expressing views on an accused’s guilt or innocence, which may influence court proceedings,” he said during the filing of the bill last July.
In a later statement, he gave an example of the policy in action: “Let’s say your son has been killed by someone, or you believe your son has been killed by someone. That person is facing charges. You say in anguish that ‘This person is a murderer, and that he has killed my son and he ought to hang.’ Now strictly speaking, that’s contempt, but I think it will be unlikely that any attorney-general will prosecute such a person. People will give some latitude.”
An online campaign is urging the government to delay the deliberation of the bill until after extensive public consultations have been conducted.
“We recognize the importance of fair trials, judicial independence, and compliance with court orders, but the bill goes far beyond these goals. There is still a lack of clarity regarding what is or isn’t contempt of court, and the legal tests used in determining whether something is or isn’t contempt are troublingly low,” an excerpt from the statement of the “Don’t Kena Contempt” campaign read.
Contempt of court is a serious offense, and the Singapore government has every right to protect the integrity of its justice system. But the concerns raised by activist groups and some human rights lawyers about the bill are also legitimate. The Singapore Parliament should listen to the opposition and remove the provisions that could lead to the violation of the people’s civil liberties. Justice cannot be achieved if the bill will only entrench self-censorship.