Singapore must stop targeting rights defenders and media that highlight wrongdoings

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Graphic: amnestyusa.org

We, the 37 undersigned groups and organisations, and three individuals, are appalled by Singapore’s denial and response to the highlighting of alleged unjust ‘barbaric’ unlawful practices in Singapore’s execution method that was highlighted in a media statement dated 16 January 2020 issued by the Malaysian human rights defenders group, Lawyers for Liberty (LFL). Singapore claims that it is “untrue, baseless and preposterous” (Straits Times, 22 January 2020).

We are also shocked by Singapore’s invoking of the Protection from Online Falsehoods and Manipulation Act (Pofma) and the issuing of notices/directions ordering LFL and three parties that have shared the allegations – Singaporean activist Kirsten Han, The Online Citizen website and Yahoo Singapore – to correct the false statements.

To comply with this Pofma order, “they will be required to carry a correction notice alongside their posts or articles stating that their posts or articles contain falsehoods,” the Singapore Ministry of Home Affairs said (Straits Times, 22 January 2020).

Non-compliance with the Pofma notice is a crime and, if convicted, an individual may be liable to “a fine not exceeding $20,000 or to imprisonment for a term not exceeding 12 months or to both” whereas others will be liable to a fine not exceeding $500,000.

Then, it also can lead to an access blocking order, whereby service providers will have “to disable access by end‑users in Singapore to the online location….” It is not a defence even if one has applied to the minister to withdraw/vary the order, appealed to court or is “subject to a duty under any written law, any rule of law, any contract or any rule of professional conduct, that prevents the person from complying” with the Pofma notice.

It is totally deplorable to ask any human rights defender or media agency to publicly take a position that the alleged rights violations and/or injustices that they highlighted or reported on are false or “contain falsehood”.

Where there is an allegation of a wrongdoing or a crime, it is the duty of a human rights defender or any concerned person to highlight it, and thereafter, it falls on the relevant government or relevant national, regional, international or UN bodies to conduct the needed independent investigation and determine whether what was alleged was true or baseless. Note that many investigations may even come to no conclusions due to insufficient evidence, and this should in no way lead to the assumption that the allegations were untrue.

A perusal of the LFL statement shows that their information, amongst others, was from a credible source – “a Singapore Prison Services (SPS) officer who had served at the execution chamber in Changi prison, and himself carried out hangings.” This would reasonably be someone who had first-hand knowledge of what was being alleged. In the LFL statement, it also says that “this officer is prepared to come forward and testify at the appropriate forum”.

LFL did highlight this allegation earlier, in their 23 November 2019 statement, where they said, “Finally, we have also received shocking information relating to the process of execution at Changi prison. We have incontrovertible evidence that unlawful and extremely brutal methods are secretly used in carrying out hangings by the Singapore Prison Services (SPS). We are prepared to reveal this evidence, supplied by prison officers, in due course.”

LFL, in their 16 January 2020 statement, also said: “We had also written to the Singapore authorities and informed them that we are prepared to meet them and hand over the evidence in our possession. However, the Singapore government has met our disclosures with deafening silence. Significantly, they have also not denied our allegation of brutality in carrying out hangings, which has been widely reported.”

The Singapore government should have rightfully met LFL, received the evidence and conducted a proper investigation and disclosed its findings.

According to the law, police are not supposed to torture detainees, but the fact is that some police officers do torture and even kill those in their custody. It may not be the fault of government but the fault of these errant officers who did wrong.

But, if a government, after receiving information of such wrongdoings, chooses to do nothing about it, then it can be said that the government that ‘covers up’ wrongdoings of public servants or simply ignores them may be just as guilty of these wrongdoings.

Media are obliged to report to the public, and that includes statements and positions of ordinary people and human rights defenders. Most media, would as a matter of good practice, try to get a response from the alleged perpetrator or other relevant parties but the news ought never be stifled simply because the perpetrators (or interested parties) or in this case Singapore does not provide an immediate response. Of course, most media will carry even a late response from the alleged perpetrator and/or other interested parties.

Obligations imposed on media should not be the same as those imposed on individuals using social media. Many good people who share news and views on social media, if they do get a response from the alleged perpetrator or interested parties, usually will also share that response with their readership.

In Malaysia, many human rights violations and even crimes that were highlighted by human rights defenders or media were investigated by the government.

As an example, in Malaysia, it was the investigation by a New Straits Times special probes team into the mass killings in Wang Kelian in 2015 that highlighted and suggested a massive, coordinated cover-up. It revealed that human trafficking death camps had been discovered months earlier, but police only announced the discovery on 25 May. It also questioned why the police ordered the destruction of these camps, which were potential crime scenes, before they could be processed by forensics personnel.

The Malaysian government’s response was to investigate this case, and on 16 January 2020, it was reported that the Ministry of Home Affairs would present a report by the Royal Commission of Inquiry on the Wang Kelian human trafficking incident to the cabinet the following week (New Straits Times, 16 January 2020). Hopefully, the report will be made public after that.

Like Malaysia, Singapore too should have conducted a comprehensive investigation on the allegations raised by LFL and not try to ‘force’ LFL and others who highlighted or reported this issue to publicly admit that it contained Falsehood.

Publicly highlighting allegations and/or facts of wrongdoings, rights violations and injustices today is a means of ensuring that justice is done – for otherwise, relevant governments and enforcement authorities can sometimes choose to simply ‘cover up’ such allegations.

It is wrong for any government to use laws and crimes (with serious penalties) to prevent human rights defenders, media and others from highlighting allegations of wrongdoings. Such laws that undermine the responsibilities of human rights defenders, including media, ought to be repealed. Freedom of expression, opinion and peaceful assembly ought to be protected.

The courage of human rights defenders, including media, in highlighting possible human rights violations, injustices and wrongdoings of the powerful and the government without fear or favour should be applauded, not stifled or penalised.

Media reports said that the Singapore Minister of Communications and Information on Thursday, 23 January directed Infocomm Media Development Authority to get internet service providers here to block the website of LFL, which did not comply with a correction direction issued under the fake news law (Pofma)(Straits Times, 23 January 2020).

Therefore, we call on Singapore to:

  • immediately and unconditionally withdraw that notice/directions and internet access blocking orders pursuant to the Pofma that were directed at Lawyers For Liberty, Kristen Han, The Online Citizen, Yahoo Singapore and/or any other
  • ensure an independent and thorough investigation be conducted concerning allegations of unjust and barbaric practices that allegedly happen during the hanging of persons in Singapore
  • respect human rights defenders and media agencies, and not to stifle them from carrying out their responsibility and duty to highlight allegations of human rights violations and injustices and
  • abolish the death penalty

Charles Hector issued this statement on behalf of the following 37 groups and three individuals listed below:

  1. Aliran
  2. Anti-Death Penalty Asia Network (Adpan)
  3. Asian Federation Against Involuntary Disappearances (AFAD)
  4. Association of Parents of Disappeared Persons from Indian Administered Jammu and Kashmir
  5. Association of Human Rights Defenders and Promoters – HRDP in Myanmar
  6. Asociación de Trabajadoras del Hogar a Domicilio y de Maquila–Atrahdom, Guatemala
  7. Australians Against Capital Punishment
  8. Banglar Manabadhikar Suraksha Mancha (Masum), India
  9. Dutch League For Human Rights
  10. Empower Foundation Thailand
  11. Families of Victims of Involuntary Disappearance (FIND) – Philippines
  12. German Coalition to Abolish the Death Penalty (GCADP)
  13. Global Women’s Strike (GWS), United Kingdom
  14. Japan Innocence and Death Penalty Information Center
  15. Karapatan Alliance Philippines
  16. LAW, United Kingdom
  17. Malaysians Against Death Penalty and Torture (Madpet)
  18. Malaysian Trades Union Congress (MTUC)
  19. Manushya Foundation, Thailand
  20. Migrants Assistance Program (MAP) Foundation, Thailand
  21. North South Initiative (NSI)
  22. Odhikar, Bangladesh
  23. Payday Men’s Network, United Kingdom
  24. Persatuan Komuniti Prihatin Selangor dan Kuala Lumpur
  25. Programme Against Custodial Torture & Impunity (PACTI), India
  26. People’s Empowerment Foundation, Thailand
  27. Sarawak Dayak Iban Association (Sadia)
  28. Singapore Anti–Death Penalty Campaign (SADP)
  29. Suaram, Malaysia
  30. Terai Human Rights Defenders Alliance (THRD Alliance), Nepal
  31. The Advocates for Human Rights
  32. The Day of the Endangered Lawyer Foundation
  33. The Julian Wagner Memorial Fund, Australia
  34. Union for Civil Liberty, Thailand
  35. Workers Assistance Center, Inc Philippines
  36. World Coalition Against the Death Penalty/Coalition mondiale contre la peine de mort
  37. Workers Hub For Change (WH4C)

Individuals:

  1. Vucong, Giao (PhD) – School of Law, Vietnam National University Hanoi, Vietnam
  2. N Jayaram – Journalist, Bangalore, India
  3. Mohammad Ashrafuzzaman – human rights defender from Bangladesh, in Hong Kong
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