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(Bangkok) – Singapore’s increased restrictions on news websites and other critical speech underscored the downward trend in free expression rights in the city-state, Human Rights Watch said today in its World Report 2014.

“The Singaporean government’s disdain for free expression is readily apparent from the punitive new media controls on increasingly popular online news websites,” said Phil Robertson, deputy Asia director at Human Rights Watch. “Over the past year, bloggers, cartoonists, and web editors have felt the brunt of the authorities’ efforts to maintain control over information.” 

In the 667-page World Report 2014, its 24th edition, Human Rights Watch reviews human rights practices in more than 90 countries. Syria’s widespread killings of civilians elicited horror but few steps by world leaders to stop it, Human Rights Watch said. A reinvigorated doctrine of “responsibility to protect” seems to have prevented some mass atrocities in Africa.  Majorities in power in Egypt and other countries have suppressed dissent and minority rights. And Edward Snowden’s revelations about US surveillance programs reverberated around the globe.

The Singapore government’s longstanding stringent control over printed materials and the broadcast media is increasingly extended to the Internet, Human Rights Watch said. In June, the government’s media regulator, the Media Development Authority, added registration restrictions on certain Singaporean news websites – and required a large financial bond to ensure compliance with government content restrictions. In December, the independent Breakfast Network news website decided to shut down after the government imposed onerous registration requirements and show it received no foreign funding. Another regulation banned major websites in Singapore from “advocating homosexuality or lesbianism.” 

Threats to charge activists with “scandalizing the judiciary” have also been leveled to silence those who have criticized the courts. Cartoonist Leslie Chew faced charges for comic strips he put on his Facebook page “Demon-cratic Singapore,” until he agreed to apologize. The attorney general’s office in November asked the court to bring “scandalizing the judiciary charges” against activist blogger Alex Au for a blog post he wrote.
The government continued to use repressive laws restricting freedom of association and assembly, Human Rights Watch said. Administrative detention without charge or judicial review is still used by the authorities. Legal challenges to penal code article 377A, which criminalizes sexual acts between consenting adult men, faced setbacks.

Human Rights Watch said that Singapore made some progress in 2013 by granting judges some discretion in applying the previously mandatory death penalty. Changes in the law exempted some types of murder, and low-level drug “mules” who cooperate with authorities, from facing the gallows. Those spared the death penalty received a severe caning and life in prison. Human Rights Watch opposes the death penalty in all circumstances because of its inherent cruelty.

“The government’s unrelenting obsession with control has raised real fears that it’s now the Internet’s turn to receive the ‘Singapore treatment,’” Robertson said. “Unless the government changes track, Singaporean people and companies are likely to face even greater constraints on online information and free expression in 2014.”

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