The constitution provides for freedom of expression but imposes official restrictions on these rights.
Freedom of Expression: The government significantly restricted any public statements that it contended would undermine social or religious harmony, or that did not safeguard national or public interest. Government pressure to conform resulted in self-censorship among some journalists. Nevertheless, there was an increase in open debate regarding government policies. The government did not restrict or penalize online criticism of the government’s management of the presidential election process.
In October the Administration of Justice (Protection) Act 2016 took effect. The Act identifies actions that constitute contempt of court to include publishing material that prejudges pending proceedings or interferes with proceedings in progress, and making allegations of bias against judges.
In August the Attorney General’s Chambers initiated contempt of court proceedings against Li Shengwu, a nephew of Prime Minister Lee Hsien Loong, for private Facebook comments in July that criticized the “litigious” nature of the government and the “pliant court system.” After implementation of the new legislation on contempt of court, media coverage of the case was cautious and factual.
The government-sanctioned Speakers’ Corner was the only outdoor venue where citizens could give public speeches without a Public Entertainment License. Speakers’ Corner may be used for exhibitions, performances, assemblies and processions, and citizens do not need a police permit to hold these events. All event organizers must, however, preregister online with the National Parks Board and must provide the topic of their event. Regulations state that the event should not be religious in nature or cause feelings of enmity, ill will, or hostility between different racial or religious groups. The commissioner of parks and recreation reserves the right to cancel or disallow any event or activity that he or she believes may endanger, cause discomfort to, or inconvenience other park users, and/or the general public.
Citizens need a permit to speak at indoor public gatherings outside of the hearing or view of nonparticipants only if the topic refers to race or religion. Indoor, private events are not subject to the same restrictions. Organizers of private events, however, must prevent inadvertent access by uninvited guests, or they could be cited for noncompliance with the rules regarding public gatherings.
Press and Media Freedom: According to the ISA, the government may restrict or place conditions on publications that incite violence, counsel disobedience to the law, have the potential to arouse tensions in the country’s diverse population, or threaten national interests, national security, or public order.
Government leaders urged news media to support its goals and help maintain social and religious harmony. In addition to enforcing strict defamation and press laws, the government’s vigorous response to what it considered personal attacks on officials led journalists and editors to moderate or limit what was published. In some instances, the government sued journalists or online bloggers for defamation or for stories that authorities believed undermined racial and religious harmony. In March the Info-communications Media Development Authority (see below) fined Singapore Press Holdings Radio Singapore dollars S$7,000 ($5,200) for breaching the free-to-air radio program code after its deejays made racially insensitive comments about Malays.
Government managerial and financial control strongly influenced all print and some of the electronic media. Two companies, Singapore Press Holdings Limited (SPH) and MediaCorp, owned all general circulation newspapers in the four official languages of English, Chinese, Malay, and Tamil. SPH is a publicly listed company with close ties to the government, which must approve (and may remove) the holders of management shares, who appoint or dismiss SPH management. The government investment company Temasek Holdings wholly owned MediaCorp. As a result, coverage of domestic events, and reporting of sensitive foreign relations topics usually closely reflected official government policies and views.
Government-linked companies and organizations operated all domestic broadcast television channels and almost all radio stations. Only one radio station, the British Broadcasting Corporation’s World Service, was completely independent of the government. Residents could receive some Malaysian and Indonesian television and radio programming, but with few exceptions authorities prohibited satellite dishes. Cable subscribers had access to numerous foreign television shows and a wide array of international news channels and many entertainment channels. The government did not censor international news channels but did censor entertainment programs to remove or edit coarse language, representations of intimate gay and lesbian relationships, and explicit sexual content. Residents routinely accessed uncensored international radio and television content via the internet.
The government may limit broadcasts or the circulation of publications by “gazetting” them under the Broadcasting Act and may ban the circulation of domestic and foreign publications under provisions of the ISA and Undesirable Publications Act (UPA). The law empowers the minister for communications and information to gazette or place formal restrictions on any foreign broadcaster deemed to be engaging in domestic politics.
The government may require a gazetted broadcaster to obtain express permission from the minister to continue broadcasting in the country. The government may impose restrictions on the number of households receiving a broadcaster’s programming and may fine a broadcaster up to S$100,000 ($74,000) for failing to comply.
Censorship or Content Restrictions: The Info-communications Media Development Authority (IMDA) is the statutory board under the Ministry of Communications and Information that regulates broadcast, print, and other media, including movies, video materials, computer games, and music. Banned publications consisted primarily of sexually oriented materials but also included some religious and political publications. The IMDA develops censorship standards including age-appropriate classification of media content with the help of various citizen advisory panels. The ISA, UPA, and Films Act allow the banning, seizure, censorship, or restriction of written, visual, or musical materials if authorities determine that such materials threaten the stability of the state, contravene moral norms, are pornographic, show excessive or gratuitous sex and violence, glamorize or promote drug use, or incite racial, religious, or linguistic animosities. The IMDA has the power to sanction broadcasters for transmitting what it believed to be inappropriate content. All content shown between 6 a.m. and 10 p.m. must be suitable for viewers of all ages.
Authorities edited a March episode of The Ellen DeGeneres Show to remove one guest who showed sexual paraphernalia and another who discussed her nonbinary gender identity, although the segments were available for viewing on blogs.
Libel/Slander Laws: Critics charged that government leaders used defamation lawsuits or threats of such actions to discourage public criticism, coerce the press, and intimidate opposition politicians. Conviction on criminal defamation charges may result in a prison sentence of up to two years, a fine, or both. In March the Attorney General’s Chambers warned activist Han Hui Hui that she would be charged with contempt of court unless she formally apologized for stating on social media that she was mistreated while she was in temporary custody at the state courts.
Although online end users generally had unrestricted access to the internet, the government subjected all internet content to similar rules and standards as traditional media, as defined by the IMDA’s Internet Code of Practice. Individuals and groups could engage in the expression of views via the internet, including by email. Internet service providers are required to ensure that content complies with the code. The IMDA also regulates internet material by licensing the internet service providers through which local users are required to route their internet connections. The IMDA investigates content that is potentially in breach of the code when it receives complaints from members of the public. In June a take-down notice was issued to the Online Citizen, a website dedicated to “cyberactivism,” for posting a false article regarding how money raised from the issuance of Singapore Savings Bonds would be used.
The law permits government monitoring of internet use, and the government closely monitored internet activities, such as social media posts, blogs, and podcasts. The IMDA was empowered to direct service providers to block access to websites that, in the government’s view, undermined public security, national defense, racial and religious harmony, or public morals. Political and religious websites must register with the IMDA.
The internet was widely available and used.
The Online News Licensing Scheme requires more heavily visited internet news sites to obtain a license. The license requires these sites to submit a bond of S$50,000 ($37,000) and to adhere to additional requirements to remove prohibited content within 24 hours of notification from the IMDA. Many citizens viewed this regulation as a way to censor online critics of the government. The IMDA stated there was a need to regulate commercial news sites and promote conformity with other forms of media such as print and television. As of November 2016, all 11 major news sites had obtained IMDA licenses.
Smaller news sites that cover political issues are required to register under the Broadcasting Act Class License to ensure that registrants do not receive foreign funding.
Citizens were encouraged not to post information online that could undermine racial or religious harmony. In April police issued “stern” warnings to two men who posted Facebook comments about an offensive remark by an Indian imam concerning Jews and Christians. The imam was convicted, fined, and deported.
Academic Freedom and Cultural Events
Public institutions of higher education and political research had limited autonomy. Although faculty members were not technically government employees, they were potentially subject to government influence. Academics spoke, published widely, and engaged in debate on social and political problems, although public comment outside the classroom or in academic publications that ventured into prohibited areas could result in sanctions. Publications by local academics and members of research institutions rarely deviated substantially from government views.
The law authorizes the minister of communications and information to ban any film, whether political or not, that in his opinion is “contrary to the public interest.” The law does not apply to any film sponsored by the government and allows the minister to exempt any film from the act.
Certain films barred from general release may be allowed limited showings, either censored or uncensored.