Concerned over increased criminalization of expression , a United Nations human rights expert today expressed serious concern about the upcoming trial of a 17-year old Singaporean for Facebook posts and blog comments that wounded the religious feelings of Muslims and Christians.
The UN Special Rapporteur on freedom of opinion and expression, David Kaye, warned in a press release issued by the Office of the UN High Commissioner for Human Rights (OHCHR), that: “First, the trial concerns an expression that is lawful under international human rights law, and second, the person being tried is considered a child under international human rights law.”
The blogger’s trial is scheduled for 17 August. If convicted, he may face up to three years in jail. Last year, this same blogger was sentenced to four weeks in prison for posting a video that caricatured Singapore’s first Prime Minister, Lee Kuan Yew.
“Tolerance and the rights of others are legitimate aims for any State to pursue,” the UN expert said. “However, the criminalization of a broad range of legitimate, even if offensive, expression is not the right tool for this purpose, and may well have the opposite effect.”
Noting that the teenager’s trial was one of several cases in Singapore, he pointed out that it reflected a widening crackdown – not only on controversial expression but also political criticism and dissent.
“International human rights law allows only serious and extreme instances of incitement to hatred to be prohibited as criminal offences, not other forms of expression, even if they are offensive, disturbing or shocking,” Mr. Kaye stressed.
In May, human rights lawyer Teo Soh Lung and blogger Roy Ngerng were investigated for allegedly breaching the Parliamentary Elections Act by posting, on their private Facebook pages, comments regarding government transparency and accountability.
While the Act prohibits campaigning in the last 24 hours prior to elections, it explicitly exempts the online expression of a private individual’s political views. The press release indicated that this was the first time individuals were investigated under such provisions.
“Threats of criminal action and lawsuits contribute to a culture of self-censorship, and hinder the development of an open and pluralistic environment where all forms of ideas and opinions should be debated and rebutted openly,” emphasized the UN expert.
Despite invoking the Parliamentary Elections Act to investigate, search and confiscate the personal belongings of Teo Soh Lung and Roy Ngerng, no charges have, to date, been brought against them.
“States are under an obligation not only to respect and protect, but also to promote freedom of expression. Increased criminalization of expression is in breach of this obligation,” concluded Mr. Kaye.
Special Rapporteurs are appointed by the UN Human Rights Council to examine and report back on a specific human rights theme or a country situation. The positions are honorary and the experts are not UN staff, nor are they paid for their work.