SINGAPORE: The Human Rights Watch (HRW) on Tuesday (Mar 27) morning responded to criticism against it during the People’s Action Party Policy Forum's (PPF) public hearing by the Select Committee on Deliberate Online Falsehoods,which it said it was unable to attend because of staffing and scheduling issues.
The Ministry of Law late on Tuesday questioned HRW's response, saying that it had yet to explain why it is unable to attend the hearing via video-conferencing.
Last Friday, the PPF slammed a 2017 HRW report which described Singapore as a “repressive place” that imposed criminal penalties for peaceful speech.
The group, an arm of the People's Action Party that engages Government leaders on policy issues, called the report a “type of deliberate falsehood” in a written submission to the Select Committee.
At the hearings the same day, Select Committee chairman Charles Chong stated that the committee had invited HRW to give oral evidence at the hearings on any of the eight hearing dates, but that HRW maintained that it was unable to participate and did not take up an offer of video-conferencing.
The Law Ministry also suggested that HRW had chosen not to come to Singapore to publicly defend its views because it knew that its report would not withstand scrutiny.
In a response provided to Channel NewsAsia on Tuesday, HRW said that it sent a letter to four senior members of Singapore's Government, requesting their input and response to findings in the report, on Oct 30 last year.
The letter was sent to Prime Minister Lee Hsien Loong, Minister for Home Affairs K Shanmugam, Minister for Communications and Information Yaacob Ibrahim, and Minister for Foreign Affairs Vivian Balakrishnan, HRW said.
However, it said, it received no response by the time of publication of the report on Dec 13 last year, and has still yet to receive a response.
The report, released last December, analysed laws and regulations that HRW said suppress the rights to free speech and peaceful assembly, including the Public Order Act, the Sedition Act, the Broadcasting Act, various penal code provisions, and laws on criminal contempt.
"As the Government has not disputed our factual findings and has not replied to our recommendations, which were offered in good faith to promote and protect free expression and peaceful assembly in Singapore, it is both ironic and absurd that the Ministry of Law and members of the ruling People’s Action Party are now accusing Human Rights Watch of being unwilling to defend our report," HRW said.
It also provided an explanation for its absence from the Select Committee hearings: "Human Rights Watch has no staff based in Singapore. We offered to send the relevant staff member on a particular date, but the committee did not confirm a date that could work for our staff until after we had made other commitments."
HRW's response, however, leaves out any explanation for why it is unable to attend through video-conferencing, from an overseas location, at any time between Mar 15 and 29 Mar, the Ministry of Law said on Tuesday night.
"HRW’s lack of enthusiasm in wanting to defend its report is obvious," it added.
HRW said that it had responded to Parliament to say that it looks forward to reading any submissions and will respond if it thinks it is "necessary and appropriate".
"To date, no submission has raised any serious question about our factual findings. We have also offered to meet with government officials in Singapore or elsewhere, or relevant parliamentarians, at a mutually convenient date to discuss the report."
In the statement, HRW also criticised the Select Committee hearings, saying: "It is now clear that the purpose of the hearing was not to discuss our findings and recommendations in good faith, or to get our input into dealing with 'deliberate online falsehoods' in a manner consistent with international standards, but to engage in ridiculous and irrelevant arguments aimed to discredit our report and Human Rights Watch."
"The people of Singapore are not served by a Government and ruling party that appears to be more interested in public grandstanding than having a substantive discussion about threats to the internationally protected rights to freedom of expression and assembly."