Written by Ng E-Jay
15 April 2009
The mainstream media has clarified that the new Public Order Act 2009 will not be used to stop the filming of civil disobedience activities (see the bottom of this article). This means that citizen journalists can continue to make films of peaceful protesters marching for their fundamental freedoms.
However, mainstream media reports on the Act have been misleading on a few other points.
The Straits Times article “The Public Order Act: What it is all about” published on 14 April mentions that penalties for first-time offenders have been relaxed. This is untrue.
According to the PDF copy of the Act released by Parliament (see here), each person who takes part in a public assembly or public procession in respect of which no permit has been granted and where such permit is required by the Act shall be guilty of an offence and liable on conviction to a fine not exceeding $3,000 for first time offenders, or $5,000 for repeat offenders — Section 16(2),(3).
Currently, the maximum fine for all offenders, whether first time or otherwise, is $1,000. The new Act thus increases rather than decreases the penalty for civil disobedience.
The same article also states that under current law, the police can do only one of two things in the event of an assembly or procession without permit:
- For non-seizable offences, observe and warn a person, and follow up with a post-event investigation. The police cannot stop the offence from taking place.
- For seizable offences, arrest the person.
Again, this is misleading, as the police have in fact arrested peaceful protesters on several occasions in the past. Either the mainstream media have their facts wrong, in the sense that the police have already been accorded such powers even before the new Act came into being, or the police in fact overstepped their boundaries and abused their powers of arrest.
I will leave it to readers to decide which is the case. There is no need for further elaboration.
But the most misleading assertion made by both PAP ministers as well as the mainstream media is that the new Public Order Act is enacted in response to the need for security and public safety in a changing geopolitical climate.
As has been argued previously on this website, existing legislation is already adequate to deal with security issues arising from terrorist threats or other criminal activity. The new Public Order Act does not give the authorities more leeway or discretion to deal with violent crime and terrorism than they already do. It is abundantly clear therefore that the new Act is intended by the ruling party to be an instrument of oppression rather than an instrument of protection, as an enhanced means of stifling political dissent, rather a than a means of promoting greater security.
Let us call a spade a spade and let us all be clear as to what the Act really is all about — a sugar coated poison pill that further subjugates political freedom and civil rights in the name of public interest.
Filming of security operations
# The POA empowers law enforcement officers to stop a person from filming or taking photos of a security operation, or where the safety of an officer is endangered. They can seize the photos or films.
# Officers who can stop such filming: Police officers above the rank of sergeant; Corrupt Practices Investigation Bureau officers; narcotics officers; intelligence officers; immigration officers. These officers can search a person without a warrant if the latter is suspected of having such a film, and even take him into custody. They can also enter premises to conduct such a search. Equipment used to make such a film may be seized.
# These powers are not meant to be used against filming of routine police activities. If a police officer is misconducting himself, the public can film it. The film can be used for investigation and disciplinary action against the officer if needed.
# The powers are not targeted against the filming of acts of civil disobedience. These powers are tightly scoped to where a security operation can be prejudiced or the life of an officer is endangered. The powers cannot be used to prevent filming of police abuse.
# A person who films a relevant activity commits an offence only when he is ordered to stop filming and refuses, or if he is ordered to surrender a film and refuses. There is no question of someone filming an activity, without knowing that he is not supposed to do so, and being prosecuted for it.