Tuesday, September 13, 2005

Two charged with sedition for racist remarks online

Part 1|2|3

Covered by CNA, AP and Reuters. Interestingly, the CNA report avoided mentioning their specific targets. From the Reuters report:
The two ethnic Chinese men, aged 25 and 27, face charges for promoting ill-will and hostility between ethnic communities on their personal websites [CNA also adds: and on an online forum], or "blogs", in June. The police said both men were accused of posting racist remarks aimed at Singapore's mostly-Muslim ethnic Malay community. If convicted, they may be jailed for up to three years or fined up to S$5,000, or both.
My gut feeling is that the unhappiness that is bound to be generated will be driven by the lack of transparency. People are going to ask: "Just what did the two post that make them deserving of such a serious charge?" And if the details are not forthcoming--as they usually are not--non-netizens will simply do the easy thing and draw the worse conclusions--about the morals of "bloggers" and netizens in general, or about the "climate of fear" in Singapore. As Jeff Yen nicely puts it: "...we all know how ambiguous these sorts of things can be (remember the scholar?), especially in the context of online content like forum posts and blog entries. I wonder what the real story is." (update: ST has more details; scroll down)

More background - Singabloodypore has an earlier version of the CNA story in which the names of the forums/sites involved are listed. Singasingapore brings you up to speed with the relevant laws; follow-up (strongly recommended).

Other (more substantial) blogosphere reactions range from those who are unhappy, to those who say "I told you so...":

Xenoboy - "There is a softer regulating mechanism to enact against the bloggers. The infamous SBA and now MDA content regulations guidelines policy, which was based on some paragraphs of the Sedition Act, was not used. Instead, the Full Force of the Law was applied. This is a signal. An indication of intent. No cheeky white elephants...The target is at the medium of the cyberspace. Nothing more. Nothing less."

shuan - "I seriously hope the judges realise how chilling the effects on free discussion, expression and speech it would be if the decision is not crafted properly. We still generally don't throw people into jail for being stupid and irresponsible unless they actually kill, hurt someone or are in a state highly conducive towards hurting someone e.g. criminal negligence, drunk driving etc. Let's hope they keep it that way."

Mr Wang - "This is rare. I don't think I ever came across a single case under the Sedition Act when I was working as a Deputy Public Prosecutor. I don't even recall ever looking into the Sedition Act."

coup de grĂ¢ce - "A very disturbing turn of events. If anybody deserves to be charged and arrested for speaking their minds, it would be these two. Posting on forums, Koh and Lim went beyond simple racist remarks, instead advocating widespread ethnic cleansing. The problem is, under the circumstances, nobody deserves to."

Agagooga - "I suspect that these were the people who did the Second and Third Holocaust blogs, which were extreme even by Singaporean online standards (even on the Sammyboy forums, the most people call for is for racial discrimination, not for them to be racially cleansed). Even so, this is not going to do anything to calm the nerves of our (justifiably?) paranoid populace. If these 2 could be (and were) tracked down despite their almost-certain attempts to conceal their identities, no one is going to harbour any more illusions."

Mr. Brown - "Publishing race hate in any medium, be it blogs, email, print, tv, radio, or a piece of paper you put on people's car, is a criminal offence in Singapore, and I believe in many countries, like the UK. Something to bear in mind, whether you are a blogger or not."

Mr. Miyagi - "For mine, the issue is a public relations related one. We have laws to protect against racism, and while these laws ain't broke, they sure could do with a little polishing. Enact an anti-racial vilification law, fellas. Leave the Sedition Act for specific seditious acts against the State."

Caleb - "I say, Jolly Good Show! We should not let racists get away lightly. The Intarweb is a public place, and as such if you have nothing nice to say then shut the hell up."

Singapore Ink - "Why are the two accused labelled as "bloggers" when one used a discussion forum and the other a website/blog (Upsaid describes itself as a "web journaling service", so we can probably consider it a blog)? Was "forumite" too clumsy and quirky a word? What about "internauts," those who like to propagate their opinions through various online media? Is this the intuitive prejudice against bloggers kicking in? Forgive me for being sensitive (oversensitive?) to this, as we as bloggers have seen no end of mockery or silliness about blogs and blogging directed at us from the media. If CNA persists in this usage, and if other big outlets i.e. the ST get into this game, guess which people or what medium will be maligned for racism?"

Shades of Sepia - "At the heart of the debate lies a somewhat simpler issue: which is more correct, the ability to speak freely about any manner of issues, even if they are largely incorrect, or the ability to live in a society that is free from such abuse? I choose the latter."

There should be more from Tomorrow.sg.

Asiapundit - "While I haven't read the offensive comments, AsiaPundit is has a very narrow view on free speech issues. While boundaries on libel and slander can be acceptable if damages can be proven, sedition seems a harsh sentence for what were likely ill-advised and ignorant comments. This doesn't solve the problem of racism, it forces it underground to fester."

update:

The Straits Times Interactive picks up the story under "latest news"--complete with photos of both plantiffs--promising "the full story". The backstory according to the report is that on June 14, ST Forum Page published a letter asking if "cab companies allowed uncaged pets to be transported in taxis, after she saw a dog standing on a taxi seat next to its owner." The concern is that the animals pay "drool on the seats or dirty them with their paws"--and for most of the Muslims in Singapore (which subscribe to the Syafie school of thought on the issue), they are prohibited by religion "to touch dogs which are wet, which would include a dog's saliva".

Enter the duo Nicholas Lim Yew, 25, and Benjamin Koh Song Huat, 27. The first "allegedly responded [to the Forum Page letter] by twice posting anti-Muslim remarks on an online forum for dog lovers, www.doggiesite.com," allegedly criticising "certain aspects of Islamic law." The latter "was said to have made similar racist comments on his blog, Phoenyx Chronicles, on www.upsaid.com on three occasions."

The original thread on www.doggiesite.com is now gone, but the aftermath can be seen in this and this thread. The blog, too, now draws a blank.

My guess is that somebody complained to the authorities (exactly what happened in the CZ Affair), rather than that an internet police is lurking around (as Chem Gen seems to think so). As reported in the ST article, "according to the charges, these postings 'had a seditious tendency to promote feelings of ill-will and hostility between different classes of the population in Singapore'."--which is exactly the part of the Act that Singasingapore focused on in his most illuminating post." (That is, Section 3 of the Act.) (further note: Singasingapore now has a new post "Anonymity and your IP address" which is also very useful.)

hat tip: Elia Diodati (who left a comment), the whole thing has made the pages of Slashdot. The comments there are piling fast and furious, most of it very...American. (But I'm not complaining, since it's been sending visitors here since a commentor left the URL to this post there. So: Welcome! If you stumbled here from Slashdot.)

Earlier coverage on the Electric New Paper.

Updates on a new post (more details now available about what is it the two posted).

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