SINGAPORE: Changes that give officers from the Info-communications Media Development Authority (IMDA) powers to enter, search and seize evidence without a warrant for “serious offences”, such as those involving films prohibited on public interest grounds and unlicensed public exhibition, were passed in Parliament on Wednesday (Mar 21).
This is an extension of powers that IMDA already has.
“IMDA enforcement officers currently already have powers under the Films Act to enter premises and seize evidence without a warrant for offences relating to obscene, party political and unclassified films,” a spokesman for the authority said.
The changes also mean IMDA officers can now request information and documents that are necessary to ensure compliance with the amended Films Act, gain access to places where films are publicly exhibited or distributed for inspection purposes, and require the attendance of persons for the purpose of investigating breaches and offences under the amended Films Act.
Minister for Communications and Information Yaacob Ibrahim said during the second reading of the Films (Amendment) Bill that these changes are critical, given Singapore's multi-racial and multi-religious society.
“Issues like race and religion have torn many societies apart, but in Singapore, we live together harmoniously. This did not occur by chance and we need to continue to work hard to preserve it," Dr Yaacob added.
As one of the smallest and most open countries, Singapore is "highly susceptible" to foreign influences and information campaigns that can undermine social values or sow discord among communities, he said.
He added that advances in technology mean that such “undesirable content” can easily be disseminated locally, through the rapid and mass reproduction of films.
He was explaining the need for the extension against a backdrop of public concern. A public consultation by IMDA and MCI received 134 submissions during the public consultation from Dec 4 to Dec 30 last year.
TWEAKS FOLLOWING PUBLIC CONSULTATION
Several adjustments were made to address public feedback, Dr Yaacob said. The extended powers will only be used in “more serious offences” - such as those involving prohibited films and the unlicensed public exhibition of films.
The power to enter and search without warrant will only be exercised on certain conditions, he said.
This can be done when the enforcement officer suspects on "reasonable grounds" that the specified offences have been committed or are being committed, or that evidence that the specified offences have been committed can be found in the relevant premises and it is necessary to secure the evidence to prevent it from being concealed, lost or destroyed, he elaborated.
In addition, all enforcement powers will only be exercised by IMDA’s enforcement officers, who are and will continue to be trained by the Home Team, he said.
IMDA will also provide an avenue so that owners can challenge seizures of their items in court within 48 hours of the seizure.
The new sections will enable IMDA to enforce the Films Act effectively and efficiently whenever necessary, he said.
“They will also allow the Police to focus its resources on other threats to security and law and order. I would like to assure the House that IMDA will calibrate its enforcement actions and only use the most intrusive powers when it is absolutely necessary to safeguard public interest,” he said.
MEMBERS RAISE CONCERNS OVER “SWEEPING POWERS”
Despite tweaks to the proposed changes, some MPs and NMPs raised concerns over the extended powers.
Though now circumscribed, these powers are still “very expansive”, said Workers’ Party MP Daniel Goh.
“If used in a heavy-handed manner and liberally, it would erode public confidence in the regulation regime for films and thus negatively affect the development of the media industry,” he said.
Some MPs raised questions about the IMDA officers tasked with such duties, including member for Ang Mo Kio GRC Darryl David, who asked what training and internal process have been put in place "to ensure that these officers are equipped with the relevant knowledge to exercise their authority appropriately". NMP Ganesh Rajaram asked how senior these officers are.
In response, Dr Yaacob said during his closing speech that IMDA's enforcement officers already have and will continue to attend and pass Home Team investigation courses, where they receive both classroom and practical training alongside Home Team officers.
They are trained in areas such as powers of entry, search and seizure, collation of evidence, recording of statements and preparation of investigation reports, he said, adding that they go through five weeks of training. In addition, they have to go through annual refreshers.
"The enforcement officers are also security vetted and the majority have prior experience in law enforcement agencies," he added.
Members also asked if alleged offenders’ personal devices would be seized. To that, Dr Yaacob said that only items used in the committing of offences will be seized.
For instance, for unlicensed public exhibition, IMDA officers are likely to seize the storage medium where the film is kept, but not the projector or the exhibitor’s mobile phone, while for the distribution of unclassified films, officers will only seize the copies of films being displayed, or intended for distribution, but not personal items such as the distributor’s mobile phone.
During the investigation of seized items, only materials that are relevant to the offence will be flagged as evidence, while the rest will be protected and will not be disclosed, he added.
CO-CLASSIFICATION SCHEME FORMALISED
Co-classification for video distribution was piloted in 2011, while the process for film distribution was piloted in 2015. The scheme involves allowing external film content assessors trained by IMDA to classify films and videos up to PG13 ratings.
The Bill formalised this scheme by setting out the registration requirements for film content assessors, the types of films they can classify, their duties and the regulatory steps that may be taken against misclassification.
“The co-classification scheme will nurture a pool of content assessors familiar with the film classification guidelines and enable films and videos to be brought to market more quickly, thereby benefiting both film exhibitors and distributors as well as consumers,” Dr Yaacob said. He added that IMDA will put in place safeguards to ensure that our content standards are upheld.
The scheme is optional, he said, meaning that those who prefer to submit films to IMDA for classification can continue to do so.
Among members who raised concerns on the scheme was Nominated Member of Parliament Kok Heng Leun, who is also a prominent figure in the Singapore arts scene.
He said he was "unable to support" some of the amendments as they may “stifle the creative and art scene in Singapore”. He counted this amendment among them.
While the convenience has been welcomed by distributors, the scheme may not benefit film-makers and consumers, he said.
Some production companies are also distributors, and some even wear the hat of exhibitor, he said.
“With so many interests at stake, it could be the case that interventions can happen at the creative process, as early as scripting stage and editing stage to cut more out, in order to fit lower age-restriction ratings,” he said.
Film-makers may then find themselves in a disadvantageous position with reduced bargaining power, and have to compromise their artistic vision, he added.
MEMBERS RAISE QUESTIONS ON DEFINITION OF FILMS AGAINST NATIONAL SECURITY
Another amendment means that appeals against IMDA’s decisions to refuse classification for films that are deemed to be against national security will be heard and decided by the Minister for Communications and Information instead of the Films Appeal Committee (FAC).
“We have proposed this amendment as ensuring national security is one of the Government’s core responsibilities. It is neither ideal nor fair for a citizen panel such as the FAC to assess threats to national security, as members may not be privy to the full extent of security concerns due to the sensitivity of the information,” Dr Yaacob said during the second reading.
However, he added that the Bill requires that the Minister first consults with the FAC before coming to a final decision, to preserve citizen representation in the deliberation of such appeals.
Mr Kok had issues with the vague definitions of what goes “against national security” for films that will be refused classification.
He said that film-makers he spoke to expressed concerns that the lack of clarity of the terms may have the “unintended effect of restricting and impeding how to produce their films”, since they may not know whether the content of their films may have crossed the boundaries, and eventually be refused classification.
“In turn, this may cause the film industry to self-censor itself on the kind of films that they may produce,” Mr Kok said.
In response, Dr Yaacob said the authorities do not disagree with Mr Kok on setting some considerations broadly.
“But given the complex nature of national security matters, the prudent approach would be to avoid binding this in legislation.”
In refusing classification, Dr Yaacob sought to reassure that IMDA "has been and will continue to provide grounds for its decisions".
“Should there be appeals for films with national security concerns, I envisage that we will adopt an appeals process similar to existing ministerial appeals, where the appellant and IMDA would be given due opportunity to make their respective cases to the Minister via written submissions. Where possible, the Minister will also provide the appellant with grounds of his decision,” he said.