SINGAPORE: Parliament on Wednesday (Mar 21) approved legislation requiring people in the vicinity of “serious incidents” such as a terrorist attack to stop taking or sharing pictures or videos of the incident area, and to stop text or audio messaging about security operations.
This Communications Stop Order (CSO) aims to minimise terrorists’ access to information, which could compromise law enforcement operations. It can only be activated by the Commissioner of Police (CP), after the Minister for Home Affairs has activated the Public Order and Safety (Special Powers) Act (POSSPA).
“In several overseas incidents, police forces had appealed to the public not to transmit or broadcast videos of ongoing operations, to protect the safety of their officers and the public,” said Second Minister for Home Affairs Josephine Teo in Parliament. “But this is usually not effective. Cases of individuals and media knowingly transmitting and broadcasting are common, even when they are told the information may lead to the loss of lives.
She illustrated how modern technologies could hinder police efforts in instances like hostage rescue, saying: “The police need to have the element of surprise over the perpetrators, so that the latter will not start to harm the victims in anticipation of police’s response, or prepare themselves to defeat police action. The best-laid plans of the police can be thwarted by a stray tweet or social media livestream.
“The CSO is not an information blackout throughout a terror incident, as some have portrayed it,” Mrs Teo clarified. “It is location-specific; the CSO will only apply to coverage of the target area. It is limited in duration; after the security operations are over, the CSO will be lifted.
“Even with a CSO, post-incident reporting is still necessary. Therefore, the police will allow selected media access to incident locations, so that the events can still be recorded for subsequent use.”
Breaching a CSO is an offence which can lead up to two years in jail, or a fine of S$20,000, or both.
But Mrs Teo stressed the police would not take action against civilians who may be caught in the hostage situation and trying to get messages out.
Under the POSSPA, the police can act within the incident area to intercept unmanned aerial vehicles (UAVs) like drones; question individuals; and ask building owners to close down premises or restrict entry and exit.
The Minister for Home Affairs can also ask telcos to withdraw services in a target area, though Mrs Teo noted this would be unnecessary when the CSO is “sufficient and effective”.
Other groups of individuals can also be called on to assist the police, such as officers from other Home Team agencies such as the Singapore Civil Defence Force and Central Narcotics Bureau. Singapore Armed Forces servicemen could be authorised to search, arrest, and set up cordons. And the police may ask civilians such as Community Emergency Response Team (CERT) volunteers and private security officers to help man outer cordons or prevent persons from entering the cordoned area, said Mrs Teo.
“Nothing in POSSPA obliges civilians to assist the police, and neither will the police request for civilian assistance where there may be danger,” she added. “Police will only rely on civilians who are able, and willing to assist. In other words, a civilian can refuse to assist and no action will be taken against him.”
POSSPA also retains and updates existing provisions from the Public Order (Preservation) Act (POPA) enacted in 1958 - such as the power to impose cordons, power of requisition to use equipment, electricity or space within the target area, and the use of lethal weapons as a last resort.
The latter may occur when it is “reasonably necessary” to prevent persons, vehicles or vessels from entering the cordoned area, or to remove them from the cordoned area; as well as to enforce road closures and disperse processions and assemblies in the target area which might be threatening public safety or order.
SAFEGUARDING AGAINST ABUSE
Mrs Teo additionally noted that even after activation of the POSSPA, not all of its provisions will automatically come into force. Each “special power” has to be specifically unlocked by the police commissioner “only as and when deemed necessary”.
Each activation order also lasts for a month, after which a new one must be made.
On the ground, police officers have to adhere to clear criteria and limits when exercising their powers. They are further subject to internal guidelines and rules of engagement.
A previous provision in the POPA allowing Parliament to annul the proclamation by the Home Affairs Minister by resolution has not been carried over to the POSSPA, though “there is no sinister reason for this” said Mrs Teo.
“Even without this provision, members can question the Minister if they believe an activation order should not have been issued or should be annulled. Parliament has not been and is not prevented from holding ministers to account for decisions or policies, just because there are no specific provisions in the law,” she explained.
“In any case, judicial review of the Minister’s decision to make an activation order remains an avenue to curb improper use by the Minister of his powers.”
Said Mrs Teo: “In a fast evolving incident such as a terrorist attack, time is of the essence ... To save lives, the police will have to act fast. Should we build in additional layers of approval, for example to require Parliament to confirm the Minister’s activation or the commissioner's authorisations even while the situation is still unfolding?
“Or is a better approach to enable the police to act swiftly, effectively and in good faith, and be held to account after the crisis is over?”
“In Singapore’s case, I believe the latter is better able to serve our interests.”
“SINGAPORE AS A PRIZED TARGET”
Earlier Mrs Teo also painted the context for introducing the POSSPA. “In Singapore, it is difficult to imagine the circumstances under which the powers in this Bill would be required,” she acknowledged. “We see news reports of gunmen attacks, hostage incidents. But they are happening elsewhere, not in Singapore. Not yet, fortunately.”
“We may not be so fortunate every time. Because a terror attack hasn’t happened in Singapore yet, it is difficult to appreciate the severity of the threat, and to imagine the grave consequences.
“The reality is that Singapore faces a clear and continuing threat,” said Mrs Teo. “Foreign terrorists see Singapore as a prized target … We should therefore not be lulled into a false sense of security. We have to prepare.”
The POSSPA was put forth only after studying terrorist attacks across the world, and the “limitations and problems” countries faced in dealing with them, she stated.
"Even as we debate the extent of the special powers, let us remember that we will never really know whether our preparations go far enough, until they are put to the test in an actual incident.
“The bottom line is this: It is up to us to safeguard Singaporeans and Singapore if and when we come under a terror attack. In this, we must not fail.”