Singapore to tighten curbs on free speech

Singapore is proposing to tighten laws governing the internet and public gatherings as part of an overhaul of the city-state’s penal code.

The changes would give the government broader statutory authority to prosecute offenders and to punish them with higher fines, in spite of promises by Lee Hsien Loong, the prime minister, to promote an “open society”.

Singapore has some of the world’s toughest restrictions on free speech and assembly. The issue received international attention during the recent International Monetary Fund/World Bank annual meeting. Singapore banned outdoor protests and some accredited representatives of non-governmental organisations were barred from entering.

Reporters Without Borders recently ranked Singapore 146th out of 167 countries surveyed for press freedom.

Outdoor gatherings of five or more persons and speaking in public without a police licence are already forbidden.

The proposed amendments, which will be submitted to parliament after a month-long period of public consultation, would give the government more power to act against public gatherings by no longer having to prove in court that they intended to cause a disturbance.

Singapore has laws that could be used against public protesters “but the definition of an offence will be wider now”, said Amolat Singh, a Singapore lawyer.

“If five or more persons gather in preparation to commit a crime, such as a gang robbery, it will constitute an unlawful assembly. We need to be able to take action even before they commit robbery,” the government said.

Internet users could face punishment for defamation and making “statements that cause public mischief” or for “the wounding of racial feelings”. Documents, including film or sound recordings, sent over the internet could be subject to criminal prosecution.

The internet has rapidly become an alternative to Singapore’s state-controlled media. A survey released on Thursday by the government’s Media Development Authority said 65 per cent of Singaporeans between 15 and 49 were at least moderate internet users, and a third of people in the same age group produced internet content, such as blogs.

The government said the new laws would help to combat crime, such as credit card fraud, and punish those who disturb racial and religious harmony.

The government remained unapologetic about its tough controls over the traditional media and the internet.

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