Content Regulation / Censorship, Gender Expression, Indecency / Obscenity
The State v. Momar Sowe and Alieu Sarr
Closed Contracts Expression
Global Freedom of Expression is an academic initiative and therefore, we encourage you to share and republish excerpts of our content so long as they are not used for commercial purposes and you respect the following policy:
Attribution, copyright, and license information for media used by Global Freedom of Expression is available on our Credits page.
On March 27, 2015, Amos Yee Pang Sang uploaded a video of himself on YouTube that contained derogatory analogies between the late Prime Minister of Singapore, Lee Kuan Yew and Jesus Christ. On March 28, 2015, he then created an image of the Prime Minister having anal sex with Margaret Thatcher, the former Prime Minister of the United Kingdom. He proceeded by uploading the image to his blog.
The government charged Yee under Section 292 of Singapore’s Penal Code for deliberate intent of offending Christianity and Section 298 for electronic transmission of an obscene image. On May 12, 2015, the District Court of Singapore sentenced him to four weeks of imprisonment. However, as the sentencing was backdated to include 53 days he served in remand, he was freed immediately following the trial. On October 08, 2015, the High Court of Singapore dismissed Yee’s appeal against his conviction and jail sentence.
Columbia Global Freedom of Expression notes that Some of the information contained in this report was derived from secondary sources.
On March 27, 2015, after the death of Singapore’s first Prime Minister Lee Kuan Yew, Amos Yee Pang Sang, a 16-year old citizen of Singapore, uploaded a video of himself on YouTube, demeaning the Prime Minister and comparing him to Jesus Christ by saying that both “are power hungry and malicious but deceive others into thinking they are both compassionate and kind.” On March 28, 2015, he then created and uploaded an obscene image, which depicted Lee Kuan Yew and Margaret Thatcher engaging in anal sex.
On March 29, 2015, the government arrested Yee and charged him with three separate criminal offenses. The first charge was that his YouTube video violated Section 298 of the Penal Code as it contained remarks against Christianity with the deliberate intention of wounding the religious feelings of Christians in general. The second charge was under Section 4 of the Protection from Harassment Act as the video “contained remarks about Mr. Lee Kuan Yew, which was intended to be heard and seen by persons likely to be distressed.” This prosecutor later dropped this charge. The third charge was under Section 292 of the Penal Code as Yee uploaded an obscene image of Lee and Thatcher. Under this section, “[w]hoever puts into circulation any obscene object whatsoever shall be liable upon conviction to a fine or to imprisonment of up to three months, or to both.”
Yee pleaded not guilty of charges. The court documents reflect that Yee knew that the contents of his blog and video would be considered as offensive. In his own words, he said “I was fully aware that this comparison [of Lee Kuan Yew and Jesus Christ] was bound to promote ill-will amongst the Christian population,” and the contents of the video”[would] raise discontent or disaffection amongst people practicing Christian faith in Singapore.”
Judge Jasvender Kaur delivered the District Court’s decision.
The first issue before the Court was whether the image created and uploaded by Yee to his blog was obscene under Section 292 of the Penal Code. The Court first referred to the definition of obscenity under Section 42 of the Penal Code, which defines it as “anything or matter the effect of which is, if taken as a whole, such as tend to deprave or corrupt persons who are likely, having regard to all relevant circumstances, to read, see or hear the matter contained or embodied in it.” [para. 11] The Court interpreted that a conviction for producing an obscene item requires “the image be judged by its impact on the primary readership, i.e. those persons who are likely to view the blog post.” [para. 12] As applied to the case, the Court found it significant that Yee was a teenager and therefore, “reasonable to infer that a blog by a teenager will attract readership amongst this age group.” [para. 15]
The next question for the Court was whether Yee’s image posted to his blog had a tendency to deprave or corrupt teenagers. The defense argued that the image at issue did not have a tendency of depraving or corrupting its likely viewers because at most it may “either cause viewers towards being disrespectful or vulgar or lead them towards sexual experimentation.” [para. 19] The defense further contended that by applying the common standard of ordinary decent people, a tendency towards sexual experimentation or being disrespectful does not amount to the higher threshold of deprivation or corruption. The Court, however, ruled that the image “would not only tend to excite teenagers to try out different sexual positions but also deviant sexual activities, i.e., anal intercourse. Such sexual desires and lascivious thoughts would have a corrupting effect on young minds.” [para. 23] As such, the Court concluded that Yee’s image was obscene because it had a tendency of depraving or corrupting teenagers as its likely viewers.
The second issue for the Court was whether Yee’s act of creating and uploading his video, in which he compared the former prime minister to Jesus Christ was a deliberate act of offending the Christian community under Section 298 of the Penal Code. The Court stated that the section “makes it an offense if one with deliberate intention of wounding the religious feelings of any person causes any matter however represented to be seen or heard by that person.” [para. 28] The defense argued that Yee’s statements in the video were not capable of offending the religious feelings of Christians. The Court, however, was of the view that to wound the religious feelings “simply means to give offense to any person.” As applied to the case, it found that Yee’s comments about Jesus Christ, such as power hungry or deceptive were “clearly offensive and derogatory to Christians.” [para. 33]
Furthermore, the defense contended that prosecutor lacked sufficient evidence that any Christian was offended by Yee’s comments. The Court disagreed as it noted that Yee himself admitted that there were persons who were offended by his video. The Court also held that the conviction under Section 298 did not depend on actual evidence of persons being offended because “the offense if complete once an utterance is made with the intention deliberate intention of wounding the religious beliefs.” [para. 37]
The next question was whether Yee had a deliberated intent of offending the religious feelings of Christians. The defense argued that Yee’s only intention was to provide a unique analogy between the former Prime Minister and Jesus Christ and that insulting Christianity was not his “real and dominant” intent. The Court rejected the defense’s “real and dominant” test and held that Yee’s underlying motive of his analogy was irrelevant in determining his debilitate intent. It inferred the required intent based on his admission that he was “fully aware” comparing the two figures was offensive to Christians. [para. 49] As such, the Court concluded that Yee violated Section 298 of the Penal Code.
Based on the foregoing analysis, the District Court found Yee guilty of violating Section 292 and 298 of the Penal Code. The Court sentenced him to four weeks of imprisonment. Yee was released after his sentencing as he already served more than his four-week term.
On October 08, 2015, the High Court of Singapore dismissed Yee’s appeal against his conviction and jail sentence. Justice Tay Yong Kwang reasoned that “Yee used offending words against the central figure of the Christian religion. There can be no doubt that be deliberately intended to arouse Singaporeans, Christians or not, into verbal combat with him.” In response to Yee’s claim of exercising his constitutional right to freedom of expression, the justice stated that “[t]his is not freedom of speech, this is a licence to hate. to humiliate others and to totally disregard their feelings or beliefs by using words to inflict unseen wounds.” Justice Tay also commented on the blogger’s manner of speech, stating “Yee used coarse, hard-hitting words to arouse emotions . . . vulgar insults to deliberately provoke readers and draw them out.”
Decision Direction indicates whether the decision expands or contracts expression based on an analysis of the case.
Despite his manner of speech, this case contracts expression as Amos Yee was charged because of him exercising his rights to freedom of expression.
Global Perspective demonstrates how the court’s decision was influenced by standards from one or many regions.
Case significance refers to how influential the case is and how its significance changes over time.
Let us know if you notice errors or if the case analysis needs revision.