Gag orders: What to know about the legal provision that protects victims, 'vulnerable' witnesses
SINGAPORE: In court cases that have made the news, there is sometimes mention of gag orders that prevent the names of victims or suspects from being published.
One example is the recent high-profile Chin Swee Road murder case, where a gag order was imposed on the names of the couple accused of killing their two-year-old daughter.
Why are gag orders issued, can victims themselves violate it and what are the consequences of breaching such orders? We put the questions to lawyers.
1. What is a gag order?
Apart from preventing the publishing of names, a gag order also covers addresses, photographs of the person in question and any other information or evidence that are likely to lead to the identification of the person.
A court has the power to impose a gag order as defined in the State Courts Act and the Supreme Court of Judicature Act.
2. Why impose a gag order?
"Gag orders are usually imposed to protect minors, vulnerable persons and victims in sexual offence cases," said Nicholas Leong, associate at DC Law, adding that these categories are not necessarily mutually exclusive.
It may even be imposed on an accused person.
Lawyer Ashwin Ganapathy of IRB Law gave the example of a father who was charged with raping his daughter. The gag order is thus "imposed not so much as to protect the accused but to protect the victim", said Mr Ashwin.
Gag orders have also been applied in cases involving state secrets, such as where the Official Secrets Act is violated, said Abraham Vergis from Providence Law Asia.
3. Who does a gag order apply to?
It applies to everyone - including the media and members of the public, said Mr Vergis.
In the case of Chin Swee Road death, the gag order was violated after members of the public shared the suspects’ purported identities and photographs on Facebook, Mr Leong pointed out.
The Attorney-General’s Chambers had said on Wednesday (Sep 25) that it is looking into potential breaches of the gag order relating to the Chin Swee Road case.
"We will not hesitate to take appropriate action to protect the administration of justice," it added.
READ: AGC looking into potential breaches of gag order relating to Chin Swee Road murder case
4. What are the consequences of violating a gag order?
Anyone convicted of contravening a gag order issued by the court can be jailed for up to a year, fined a maximum of S$5,000, or both.
Those who share a post in breach of the gag order can also be charged.
5. Can a victim or witness protected by a gag order violate it on his or her own?
As gag orders apply to everyone - this means the person it was meant to protect cannot breach it as well.
"However, it remains to be seen if a witness protected by a gag order would be sanctioned for any breach of the gag order, given that the gag order is meant for the protection of the witness," said Darren Tan from Invictus Law.
The scenario of a victim breaching the gag order "appears to be rare or unheard of", said IRB Law's Mr Ashwin.
On Friday, some media reports published the name of the purported victim who was molested by an NUS student, after she revealed her name online despite it being protected by a court order.
READ: Shanmugam ‘surprised’ at verdict in the case of NUS student molester; AGC appeals against sentence
The victim's actions, however, do not give the media the right to publish her name, lawyers said.
"Even if the person whose identity is the subject of the gag order was willing to be identified, the media cannot identify that person unless the gag order is lifted. Otherwise they would be in contempt of court for breaching a court order not to do so," said Mr Vergis.
6. Who has the power to rescind a gag order?
Only the court has the power to remove the gag order.
"This may happen if the identity of a witness has already been revealed to the public, rendering the gag order redundant, or where an argument is made that the witness is not within the class of persons that a gag order is meant to protect," said Invictus Law's Mr Tan.
However, it would be "very rare" for a gag order to be reversed, said Tania Chin, partner at Withers KhattarWong.
Agreeing, DC Law's Mr Leong said: "Considering the circumstances in which gag orders are usually made, the party that would attempt to do so would be better served by focusing instead on the merits of his own case."