Singapore’s planned terror response stokes concerns over press freedom

Police take part in a simulated attack for the public at a housing estate in Singapore. (Reuters)

SINGAPORE — A proposed law in Singapore that would allow authorities to ban the transmission of images from terror attacks and reports about security operations has drawn criticism from non-government bodies and security experts as a curb on press freedom.

Under the proposed law, authorities could prohibit anyone from taking videos or photographs of the area of a terror attack or transmitting them and could also ban the communication of text or audio messages about the security operations in the area.

The wealthy city state is ranked as one of the world’s safest countries, but it has stepped up its terror-fighting capability in recent years as militant activity has increased in Southeast Asia.

The law prescribes fines or prison terms for failure to abide by a “communications stop” order approved by the home affairs minister and activated by the police commissioner.

Singapore’s home affairs ministry said the provision aims to prevent information leaks to terrorists that could risk the lives of security officers and those embroiled in an attack. Some security experts have praised the plan.

In an email response to a Reuters request for comment, the home affairs ministry said: ”It is not meant to restrict press freedom or public access to information.

“The order can only be made by the commissioner of police, after the minister has issued the activation order, and only if the commissioner deems it necessary for security operations.”

France-based Reporters Without Borders, which promotes and defends press freedom, said though that the “communications stop order” would be a “serious breach” of press freedom.

The Committee to Protect Journalists, a U.S.-based independent, non-profit organization, made a similar criticism.

“No one can contest the need for special measures in case of a terrorist attack,” Daniel Bastard, the Asia-Pacific head of Reporters Without Borders, said in an email to Reuters.

“But this must be dealt with at the level of police and anti-terrorist squad procedures. And above all, it is not the role of the Ministry of Home Affairs to determine what journalists can broadcast or not.”

Reporters Without Borders ranks Singapore 151st out of 180 countries in its World Press Freedom Index.

The move comes as Singapore considers legislation to fight fake news, which critics say could further hinder press freedom already limited by laws on what may be said or published.

Singapore’s minister of law, K. Shanmugam, has said that keeping falsehoods out of public discourse would make freedom of speech more meaningful.

“It is hard to see this proposed law separate from efforts by the state to strengthen and consolidate its legislative controls over independent media sources,” said Ian Wilson, a counter-terrorism specialist at Australia’s Murdoch University.

Some security experts applauded the proposed law, saying it could start an important dialogue about media practices around counter terrorism efforts.

“Governments should work with media to ensure they do not compromise security,” said Rohan Gunaratna, a terrorism expert at Singapore’s S.Rajaratnam School of International Studies.

“Media personnel should be trained to make them understand that their reporting should neither sensationalize terrorism nor unwittingly help the terrorists and cause loss of life and property,” he told Reuters.