By: Our Correspondent

Singapore which already has some of the most stringent contempt of court laws in the democratic world, is apparently about to tighten them further, alarmed human rights activists say, giving the attorney general the ability to bring contempt of court charges against a wide range of individuals or other interests, particularly the press, and hardening penalties.

The parliament on July 12 passed the bill without amendment on its first reading. It raises penalties for violations including possible prison terms for seven different ways of criticizing the judiciary. They include scandalizing the court, disobeying a court order, making unauthorized recordings, contempt by corporations, unincorporated associations or partnership, violation of the common law rules of the court or questioning its inherent power.

The measure’s second reading is scheduled for Aug. 15, with the final reading probably following shortly after that. To questions whether it might be amended, the Singapore government has a long history of introducing such measures in the certainty that they will pass into law.  This one has surfaced just as Prime Minister Lee Hsien Loong has visited the United States and has been hailed by President Barack Obama for the common values shared between the two countries. The use of contempt of court laws, which is relatively rare in the United States, does not appear to be one of those shared values, especially used against the press.

The question is why the law is being toughened now, since Singaporean judges have long brought contempt charges at the drop of a gavel against opponents of the government.

“I think it’s part of a strategic clampdown,” said a Singaporean dissident who asked not to be named for fear of being charged. “Singapore’s strategy has been two-pronged – to use the law and heavy financial penalties to curb free speech. It has worked largely but people have become more sophisticated in how they work around it, by being really careful. So the government is refining its game.”

The measure is said to be particularly aimed at the conduct of what were called “troublesome lawyers” and online news publications, clearly setting out punishments attributable to contempt, rather than conduct that would run afoul of the law, according to one analysis.  Rather than giving judges the discretion to decide on penalties, they are clearly stated in the law.  

Indeed, K Shanmugam, the law minister, said on July 11 that the draft law doesn’t expand the current legal definition of contempt of court, but represents a “crystallization of the law.” The minister also said that the legislation is designed to protect citizens’ right to a fair trial and ensure that court orders are obeyed. He noted that “fair” and “accurate” reporting made in “good faith” on court proceedings will not be penalized under the proposed law.

“Singaporean lawmakers should scrap [the]proposed legislation…” the Committee to Protect Journalists said in a prepared release. “The draft law’s penalties for violations, including possible prison terms for criticizing the judiciary, threaten to entrench more self-censorship in Singapore’s constrained media environment.”

According to the CPJ, the Administration of Justice (Protection) Bill would consolidate existing laws and judicial precedent into a statute on what may be published about court proceedings, judges, and the justice system, and would allow the attorney general, rather than judges, to accuse writers of contempt, opening the door to the government’s use of the law to pursue critics.

The draft legislation, which would also apply to material published on social media, contains broad definitions as to what constitutes contempt of court, and sets maximum penalties for infractions that would be far above what judges have ordered.

Singapore needs to soften, not stiffen, laws that bar critical commentary about its judicial system, according to Shawn Crispin, CPJ’s senior Southeast Asia representative. “Singaporean legislators should reject the proposed bill and prioritize instead passing laws that protect journalists and bloggers from frivolous, politically motivated lawsuits.”

Singaporean advocacy groups quoted in press reports say these and other broad terms from the draft legislation could encourage greater self-censorship. According to the CPJ, the Community Action Network, a local civil society group, said at a recent seminar that the law’s punitive provisions appear to specifically target “socio-political websites, activists, and those with a significant following on social media,” according to news accounts.

The draft legislation would also allow the attorney general to request a maximum penalty of three years in prison and fines of up to $100,000 Singapore dollars (US $74,500) for violations involving High Court or Court of Appeal cases. Prevailing laws for contempt of court do not define maximum penalties, and recent contempt of court sentences against writers have been much lower.

AS CPJ noted, Singapore has repeatedly used contempt of court charges to silence critical commentary of its judicial system. In 2015, Singaporean blogger Alex Au Waipang was convicted of contempt of court and fined 8,000 Singapore dollars for suggesting in two blog posts that a chief justice had shown partiality in two constitutional challenges to a law criminalizing gay sex. The Court of Appeal dismissed his challenge to the ruling, with a three judge panel ruling later that year that his article posed a “real risk” of undermining public confidence in the judiciary and that the administered fine was “wholly appropriate,” reports said.

British author and former journalist Alan Shadrake was sentenced in 2010 to six months in prison and fined 20,000 Singapore dollars for “scandalizing” Singapore’s court system in his book Once a Jolly Hangman: Singapore Justice in the Dock, which criticized the country’s use of capital punishment. It was the biggest contempt fine levied against an individual.