The ICJ, Amnesty International, ARTICLE 19, ASEAN Parliamentarians for Human Rights, CIVICUS and Human Rights Watch today called on Singapore authorities to drop investigations of human rights lawyer M Ravi and two other individuals under Singapore’s contempt of court law and cease their harassment of human rights defenders.
On 13 March, police raided the office of human rights lawyer M Ravi, editor of an independent news website, Terry Xu, seizing his phone, passport and firm’s laptop.
He is apparently under investigation for contempt of court under the Administration of Justice Act (AJPA).
The investigation followed the publication of articles on independent media website ‘The Online Citizen’ (TOC) relating to his client, Mohan Rajangam, a Singaporean who challenged the legality of his extradition from Malaysia in 2015.
The same day, police raided the home of Terry Xu, TOC’s editor, and confiscated his electronic equipment. He is also being investigated for contempt of court under the AJPA, after he published articles on Rajangam’s case. Two other individuals are also being subject to investigation, including Rajangam himself and a writer for the TOC.
Even as the police have stated that the publication online on TOC of parts of Rajangam’s affidavit breached contempt of court regulations, it is unclear what exact content poses a risk of prejudice to the court proceedings.
“The contempt of court doctrine under common law was, for years, used by authorities to curtail speech surrounding politically sensitive topics and cases,” noted Frederick Rawski, ICJ’s Director for Asia and the Pacific.
“After the coming into force of the AJPA, the contempt regime is even more vulnerable for misuse – these current raids and investigations only evidence that how the law can be abused to violate the rights of individuals.”
Investigations of the four individuals for contempt of court continue. The ICJ has been informed that as of 15 March, M Ravi had put the police on notice that the contents of his mobile phone and laptop are subject to legal professional privilege and should remain confidential until a formal ruling is made by a court of law on the matter.
Terry Xu and M Ravi have been targeted and harassed constantly by authorities for information they have released in their professional capacities as an independent journalist and human rights lawyer respectively – notably through abuse of legal mechanisms. Terry Xu is currently fighting pending cases in court relating to alleged defamation of political officials and Singapore’s problematic Protection from Online Falsehoods and Manipulation Act (POFMA). M Ravi has similarly faced action by the Attorney-General’s Chambers for his advocacy against the death penalty.
“In the lead-up to elections, it is even more crucial that the Singapore government ensure that freedom of expression, opinion and information are protected and that independent media is allowed to operate to ensure communication of a diversity of opinions and ideas and inform public opinion,” said Rawski.
“For these reasons we urge the authorities to cease harassment of the four individuals and call on them to drop investigations against them”.
Read the joint statement here.
Frederick Rawski, ICJ Asia Pacific Regional Director, frederick.rawski(a)icj.org
In its 2019 regional report, ‘Dictating the Internet: Curtailing Free Expression, Opinion and Information Online in Southeast Asia’, the ICJ found that in Singapore contempt of court proceedings have been used to curtail freedom of expression and information under the guise of “maintaining orderly proceedings” and “protecting public confidence in the judiciary”, particularly in cases of online criticism touching on politically sensitive matters.
In October 2017, the Administration of Justice (Protection) Act 2016 came into force, despite well founded concerns that its vague provisions could result in abusive interpretation and implementation, given existing trends of use of contempt of court under common law to limit freedom of expression.
The AJPA lowered the threshold for contempt in what is referred to as “scandalizing the Court”, expanding judicial powers to punish such contempt with increased and onerous penalties. Section 3(1) criminalizes the “scandalizing of court” through (i) “impugning the integrity, propriety or impartiality” of judges by “intentionally publishing any matter or doing any act that… poses a risk that public confidence in the administration of justice would be undermined” (section 3(1)(a)); and (ii) “intentional” publishing of any material which interferes with pending court proceedings, or sub judice contempt (section 3(1)(b)). Section 3(1)(a) reduced the threshold for “scandalizing” contempt to a mere “risk” of undermining public confidence in the judiciary, where the common law test established in the landmark case of Attorney-General v Shadrake Alan was to establish a “real risk” of such undermining of confidence. This exacerbated a standard that was already deeply problematic.
Section 12(1) of the AJPA increased the maximum penalty for “scandalizing” contempt to three years’ imprisonment or a fine of S$100,000 (approx. USD 72,051) or both, when under common law, a six-week imprisonment sentence and S$20,000 (approx. USD 14,410) fine had been deemed appropriate.NewsPress releases