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New press freedom group calls on Singapore to abolish laws that subvert critical voices

CAN reportA newly launched press freedom advocacy group in Singapore has called on the government to abandon its controversial media licensing framework and roll back colonial era laws that have been used to clamp down on dissenting voices.

A series of recommendations from a new group called the Community Action Network (CAN), posted on Facebook yesterday by Cherian George, an outspoken journalism professor and former Straits Times journalist now working in Hong Kong, take aim at Singapore’s Sedition Act, which was used to close socio-political website The Real Singapore, the Protection from Harassment Act, which was used to detain video blogger Amos Yee, the Media Development Authority’s licensing framework, which since it was introduced in 2013 has led to the closure of independent news site The Breakfast Network, and other laws that make critical voices vulnerable to legal action by powerful forces.

In a 16-page review that details the threats posed to freedom of the press and information in Singapore – produced jointly with international press freedom group Reporters without Borders – CAN says that defamation suits filed by politicians should “meet higher thresholds of admissbility in order to safeguard free speech”.

“Eminent individuals who enjoy easier access to the media (especially through their official positions) than the layman to remedy falsehoods should also be entitled to lower damages than that awarded to ordinary persons for the same injury,” reads the document.

Among CAN’s founding members is blogger Roy Ngerng, who lost a defamation suit to the prime minister in October last year.

The report also suggests that the Protection from Harassment Act – which Amos Yee was initially found to have violated with his video critical of late former prime minister Lee Kuan Yew – should be tightened to exclude government and big corporations from the meaning of “victims” and only apply to the harassment of individuals.

It also contends that “hurt feelings”, including on racial or religious grounds, should not be subject to criminal prosecution.

“Offences should be narrowly tailored to words and acts mobilising and inciting others to cause injury or harm within an immediate period,” the review reads.

The report suggests that the MDA’s licensing framework, which it describes as “onerous”, should be canned.

“Dismantle the onerous licensing regime for online and offline media, art events and films. Allow bloggers, artists and film-makers to self-classify without external penalties,” the report reads.

The document, which also calls on loosening of rules for protests and public assemblies, can be read in full here.

CAN says it was set up in response to “a series of state actions targeting activists and bloggers in Singapore over the past several years” which have “raised concerns about the chilling effect on freedom of expression.”

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