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Singapore: Teenage Blogger Sentenced to Jail Time

(Oct. 5, 2016) It was reported on September 30, 2016, that a 17-year-old blogger in Singapore was sentenced to six weeks in jail on charges of “wounding religious feelings” after he “pleaded guilty to posting comments on the Internet criticizing Christianity and Islam.” (Emelina Perez, Singapore Court Jails Teen Blogger, PAPER CHASE (Sept. 30, 2016).)

Article 298, under chapter XV, offenses relating to religion or race, of Singapore’s Penal Code states:

Whoever, with deliberate intention of wounding the religious or racial feelings of any person, utters any word or makes any sound in the hearing of that person, or makes any gesture in the sight of that person, or places any object in the sight of that person, or causes any matter however represented to be seen or heard by that person, shall be punished with imprisonment for a term which may extend to 3 years, or with fine, or with both. (Penal Code, No. 4 of 1871 (as last amended effective Apr. 1, 2015), THE STATUTES OF THE REPUBLIC OF SINGAPORE, Cap. 224, SINGAPORE STATUTES ONLINE.)

The teenage defendant, Amos Yee, “pleaded guilty to six charges of deliberately posting comments on the internet in videos, blog posts and a picture that were critical of Christianity and Islam.” (Fathin Ungku, Singapore Court Sends Teen Blogger Back to Jail for Criticizing Religion, REUTERS (Sept. 29, 2016).) Another two charges against Yee were related to his failure to show up at the police station, and he was also given a $2,000 fine; if he fails to pay the fine, he will have to spend an additional ten days in jail.  (Amos Yee Jailed 6 Weeks, Fined $2k, ASIA ONE (Sept. 30, 2016).) In Judge Ong Hian Sun’s view, stated in court, Yee’s “contemptuous and irreverent remarks have the tendency to generate social unrest and undermine the religious harmony in our society.” (Id.)

Background

In 2015, Yee had been convicted on charges of harassment and insulting a religious group in connection with images he posted online along with a video insulting Lee Kuan Yew, Singapore’s first Prime Minister, comparing the just deceased former leader to Jesus Christ in an unfavorable manner. (Public Prosecutor v. Amos Yee Pang Sang, GLOBAL FREEDOM OF EXPRESSION (last visited Oct. 3, 2016).)  Yee was released after the sentence in that case was decided, because he had already served more than the four-week term handed down in connection with violation of article 298 of the Penal Code and article 292, on transmission of obscene material. (Id.)

Other Singapore bloggers have faced fines or time in prison. For example, the country’s Supreme Court fined blogger Alex Au in March 2015 for comments he posted on an ongoing challenge being made to Singapore’s anti-homosexuality laws (Perez, supra), and in 2008 a Singapore court sentenced Gopalan Nair, an American blogger and attorney, to three months in jail for insulting a judge by claiming she was “prostituting herself during the entire proceedings, by being nothing more than an employee of Mr Lee Kuan Yew and his son and carrying out their orders.” (Lester Haines, US Blogger to Enjoy Singapore Jail, REGISTER (Sept. 19, 2008).)

Reactions to the Yee Trial

Officials from the United Nations Human Rights Council and the European Union attended Yee’s trial, and rights groups also followed the proceedings. The Deputy Director of the Asia division of Human Rights Watch, Phil Robertson, was quoted as saying, “[b]y prosecuting Amos Yee for his comments, no matter how outrageous they may have been, Singapore has unfortunately doubled down on a strategy that clearly violates freedom of expression,” while Amnesty International urged the Singapore government to “repeal or amend legal provisions that criminalize peaceful dissent and end the intimidation and harassment of bloggers and other critics.” (Ungku, supra.)

Other observers worry that the sentence is another step in a trend towards curtailing freedom of expression in Singapore, given that the Parliament passed controversial legislation on August 15, 2016, “spelling out what constitutes contempt of court, drawing criticism from rights groups and foreign diplomats.” (Id.; Fathin Ungku, Singapore Parliament Passes Controversial Contempt of Court Bill, REUTERS (Aug. 15, 2016); Administration of Justice (Protection) Bill, No. 23/2016 (July 11, 2016),  SINGAPORE STATUTES ONLINE.) The Ministry of Law of Singapore posted comments online in defense of those new measures.  (Administration of Justice (Protection) Act 2016 – Separating Fact from Misperception, Ministry of Law website (Aug. 26, 2016).)