Dec 21 2017

Artists React to Singaporean Media Regulator’s Push For Warrantless Searches

by Brady Ng

Singaporean artist and writer HO RUI AN is one among nearly 400 cultural figures who have signed a petition in protest of the Info-communications Media Development Authority’s proposed changes to Singapore’s Films Act. Photo by Marwan Tahtah. Courtesy the artist and Ashkal Alwan, Beirut.

Singapore’s Info-communications Media Development Authority (IMDA), which regulates the city-state’s media sectors, has proposed a change to the country’s Films Act, instigating opposition from the arts community.

At the moment, Singapore’s Films Act gives IMDA officers the authority to enter any premises without a warrant when investigating cases related to the screening or distribution of illegal motion pictures, which include “obscene” films and productions related to party politics. The amendment, which is among several that have been put forward for public consultation until December 30, expands the IMDA’s sphere wherein it can operate warrantless, by also allowing IMDA officers and police to enter any private property for inspections when investigating violations of the Films Act, including cases involving films that have not been approved by the state. The investigations will not require prior substantiated endorsement.

In response to a query from Singaporean media outlet The Strait Times, the IMDA said that its representatives “have to act quickly to secure evidence of the contraventions while minimizing the chances of the suspected offender fleeing the scene.”

After the IMDA’s proposal was made public, a petition began to circulate in Singapore, with, as of Tuesday, December 19, nearly 400 cultural figures adding their names in protest of the proposed change.

Singaporean artist and writer Ho Rui An, who is one of the signatories of the petition, offered his take via email to ArtAsiaPacific: “What appears to be happening is an extension of the arms of the state in a time when media production has become so distributed. Anyone with a phone is a media producer today. The right to search private property without a warrant goes beyond what is expected of a media regulator. This is an issue that should concern not just filmmakers but every member of the public. We are all producers and consumers of media in this age, which means we are all vulnerable to this gross overreach of bureaucratic power.”

The IMDA’s latest overture is a continuation of a crackdown on bloggers, citizen journalists and activists in recent years. In June 2016, lawyer Teo Soh Lung’s home was raided by police—with no search warrant—after she made a post on Facebook allegedly tantamount to electoral advertising on Cooling-Off Day, when political campaigning is supposedly halted and electioneering is put on hold one day ahead of an election. During the raid, Teo’s phone, desktop and laptop were seized by the officers. When another lawyer, Remy Choo, confronted the police about the seizeure of Teo’s property, he was told that he could be charged with obstructing a police investigation.

Earlier, in June 2013, the Attorney-General’s Chambers issued a warning letter to independent filmmaker Lynn Lee for “contempt of court.” Lee had previously interviewed immigrants He Junling and Liu Xiangying, who were bus drivers involved in a labor strike in 2012. He and Liu had pleaded guilty for their participation in the strike, and served jail sentences before they were deported to China. As Lee had shared video clips of the interviews, the Attorney-General’s Chambers claimed that she had generated a “real risk of prejudice.”

Singaporean legislators will debate the IMDA’s proposal in January.

Brady Ng is the reviews editor of ArtAsiaPacific.

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