February 4th, 2009
As promised, the Films Act will be liberalised to allow certain types of political films. However, the amendments that have been tabled in Parliament aren’t only about opening up space for free expression. The Government is also taking the opportunity to tighten the noose around civil disobedience.
Under the proposed amendments, recording of live events such as rallies will be allowed as long as the event itself “is held in accordance with the law”. This change is clearly targeted at Chee Soon Juan and the small band of activists who have been trying to highlight what they regard as unjust features of the political system by deliberately disobeying various laws.
These activists have been using video to magnify the impact of their civil disobedience campaigns. They film their illegal (but non-violent) demonstrations being interrrupted by police, then post the video to expose what they hope will be seen worldwide as the brutality of the PAP regime against peaceful protesters.
Examples are easily found on Youtube:
This simple tactic is routinely used by activists in Malaysia and elsewhere (blogger-turned-MP Jeff Ooi provided such media support for various protests in Kuala Lumpur). It now appears to be taking root here – but not if the Singapore Government can help it.
Home Affairs Minister Wong Kan Seng had already revealed in an interview with The Straits Times last month that the Government was drafting new legislation to deal with civil disobedience. The Films (Amendment) Bill is the first salvo in the Government’s counter-attack.
The Government is not intending to ban all reporting of illegal protests. Exempted from these provisions are any film “which is made solely for the purpose of reporting of news by a broadcasting service licensed under any written law”. This means that mainstream media such as Channel News Asia or CNN can cover such protests.
For the activists, this exception provides little comfort. Mainstream media would probably downplay and contextualise such footage in a way that blunts its political impact – partly out of respect for the authorities, but mainly because protests in Singapore are hardly worth more than a few seconds of precious airtime since they appear to have minimal popular support.
On the other hand, the logic of civil disobedience means that the new regulations can actually play into the hands of the activists. Instead of only the protesters being arrested, the video guy would also be taken away under the amended Films Act, along with his equipment. The result: even more dramatic footage, assuming it can be streamed out before the police pull the plug. Thus, the amendments will raise the cost of civil disobedience, but won’t necessarily stop it.