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New Singapore anti-terror law can order media blackout

Singaporean authorities expanded their censorship powers in a move that has worried rights groups [Getty]

Date of publication: 16 May, 2018

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Singapore can shut down communications and punish journalists reporting from the scene of a terror attack, according to planned laws.

A new law that gives the police expansive powers during terrorist attacks, including a blanket ban on journalists and members of the public reporting on the scene, took effect in Singapore on Wednesday.

The law gives the police the power to block all communications in the location under supposed attack, ranging from photographs to videos, text and audio messages, for up to a month if authorities feel security operations could be compromised.

The Ministry of Home Affairs, which drafted the law, said Tuesday that the country faces a "clear and present terrorism threat, posed by home-grown radicalised individuals and foreign terrorists."

"It is therefore important to equip the police with powers to ... respond swiftly and effectively to attacks of any scale and of varying tactics, and minimise the chances that their security operations are compromised," the ministry said.

Individuals who flout the new law face a maximum sentence of two years in prison and a fine of 20,000 Singapore dollars ($14,891).

The ministry said the law would make the police more effective in responding to terrorist threats. It cited previous attacks in Mumbai and Paris, where live broadcasts allegedly allowed terrorists to anticipate the next move of security forces.

During the 2008 Mumbai attacks, videos of security forces preparing to storm the Taj Mahal Palace Hotel allowed gunmen to anticipate the move, it said. In the 2015 attack on a deli in Paris, a terrorist who had taken several hostages was able to watch live television broadcasts showing police preparing to enter the deli, the ministry said.

Singapore, located close to the Malaysia and Indonesia, both of which are home to some Islamic State group sympathisers, has effectively checked terrorist threats.

Lawmakers have said the new law will be used sparingly, and that selected media outlets and journalists will be given access to the scene.

Rights groups have slammed the new legislation as a restriction of press freedoms. "No one disputes the need for special measures in the event of a terrorist attack, but it is not the interior ministry's job to decide what journalists can broadcast or publish," said Daniel Bastard, who heads the Reporters Without Borders' Asia-Pacific office.

Singapore is ranked 151st out of 180 countries in the group's world press freedom index.

Other similarly authoritarian nations have recently taken action over social media and communications in response to alleged "terrorist" threats, which rights groups condemn  as widening censorship practices and stifling freedom of expression.

Earlier this month, Iran banned the popular messaging app Telegram, accusing it of "inciting rebellion" and allowing "terrorist groups" to threaten national security.

Egyptian authorities recently launched a social media platform "egy.face" to rival social media giant Facebook, also citing a need to "combat terrorism".

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