The Case of Sheikh Ali Salman [Bahrain]
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A District Court of the Criminal Justice Division in Singapore sentenced the owner and editor of an online social media website to ten months’ imprisonment after the owner pleaded guilty to charges of sedition. The website hosted anonymous articles and comments that included language spreading hatred towards foreigners and between different racial groups. The Court held that it was in the public interest to impose a custodial sentence as the website had engendered “vitriol and hatred” (para. 5), and noted that individuals should not hide behind the “anonymity of cyberspace” in their attempts to promote hatred (para. 2).
Columbia Global Freedom of Expression notes that some of the information contained in this report was derived from secondary sources.
Ai Takagi, a 23-year old Australian citizen of Japanese descent, was the owner and chief editor of a social media/blogging website in Singapore called “The Real Singapore” (TRS) that operated between December 2013 and April 2015. The website purported to be a “platform where Singaporeans could express their thoughts and voice their complaints in their day-to-day lives freely, anonymously, without restrain or censorship” (para. 1). The website hosted articles and allowed anonymous comments which used language that was “intended from the outset to provoke unwarranted hatred against foreigners in Singapore” (para. 5(a)). One such article was titled ‘Why Some Singaporeans Feel Annoyed With Pinoys [a group of Filipinos] In Singapore’. Takagi was “responsible for the day-to-day editorial operations” of the website (para. 1).
In February 2015, Takagi was arrested while on vacation in Singapore (para. 5(e)) and was charged with four charges of publishing a seditious article under section 3(1)(e) and section 4(1)(c) of the Sedition Act, and three charges of a similar nature under section 175 of the Penal Code (Cap 224) of Singapore. In addition, she faced one charge under section 175 of intentionally omitting to produce documents which she was legally bound to produce to a public servant (para. 3).
The impugned articles remained accessible online until TRS was shut down on May 3, 2015. (para. 5(f)).
Judge Salina Ishak, sitting as a single judge of a district court delivered an oral verdict and sentence. Takagi pleaded guilty to the charges and “admitted to the Statement of Facts without any qualification” (para. 3), and so the main issue before the Court was the determination of sentence.
Ishak commented that the case “serves as a timely reminder that one cannot and should not hide behind the anonymity of cyberspace to pen or to publish 2 seditious articles which promote feelings of ill-will and hostility towards foreigners and Singaporeans indiscriminately” (para. 2). She referred to the Singaporean case of PP v Koh Song Huat Benjamin  SGDC 272 which had noted that the “right to propagate an opinion on the Internet is not, and cannot be [an] unfettered right” (para. 2).
Ishak accepted the prosecutor’s argument that technology had enabled an ease of distribution, and stated that “the need to protect social harmony from those who promote hostility and ill-will in Singapore is even more pertinent in the Internet age” (para. 3).
In assessing the sentence to be imposed, Ishak took into account the “nature and extent of seditious tendency”, the “financial gain” from the articles, the manner and extent of distribution of the articles, the Takagi’s “concealment of identity”, and the level of blameworthiness to be attached to Takagi (para. 5).
Ishak noted that sections 4(1)(c) and 3(1)(e) of the Sedition Act were designed to “protect racial and national cohesion in Singapore” (para. 5(a)). She held that the TRS articles had, in fact, “engendered vitriol and hatred” and that it was in the public interest that a custodial sentence be imposed (para. 5(a)).
Ishak held that the fact that Takagi had benefited financially from running TRS was an aggravating factor, and distinguished this case from other cases in Singapore (such as the Koh Song Huat Benjamin case, PP v Gan Huah Shi, PP v Ong Kiang Cheng and PP v Ello Ed Munsel Bello MAC 902864-2015 to MAC 902868-2015) by finding that Takagi had “committed sedition to enrich herself” as TRS had raised AU $ 470,000 from online advertising (para. 5(b)).
The fact that TRS was a publicly available website and “had millions of monthly unique visitors” was also used to distinguish the present case from the Koh Song Huat Benjamin and Ong Kiang Cheng cases and taken into account for the purposes of sentencing (para. 5(c)). Ishak noted that the articles did not target a specific group, but “sowed ill-will and hostility towards a wider group of foreigners and Singaporeans indiscriminately” including Filipinos, nationals from the People’s Republic of China, Indians and foreigners working in Singapore (para. 5(d)). Ishak held that this broad focus allowed Takagi to “peddle xenophobia to readers generally, instead of appealing to only those who harboured animosity towards a specific race or religion” (para. 5(d)). In addition, Ishak found that there was evidence that some of the articles were false and that the use of falsehoods was used to attract a larger audience (para. 5(d)).
Ishak criticized Takagi for hiding her identity by using a false name and by spreading misinformation that she had never been involved with TRS and for hosting her business in a foreign country in an attempt to avoid Singaporean law (para. 5(e)).
Ishak noted that Takagi was “directly involved in the publication of the seditious articles” which meant that she had a higher culpability than the accused in the other cases to which she had compared this case (para. 5(f)). In addition, the judge criticized Takagi for not having taken down the offending articles and for refusing to cooperate with the authorities (para. 5(f)).
Ishak did consider Takagi’s youth and that she was a first offender and referred to the Singaporean case of PP v Ello Ed Mundsel Bello MAC 902864-2015 to MAC 902868-2015 which involved the posting of a comment on the TRS Facebook page by a 29-year old Filipino national.
In conclusion, Ishak imposed three sentences of five months’ imprisonment and one of four months’ for the four charges to which Takagi had pleaded guilty. Two of the sentences were to run concurrently, making the effective sentence ten months’ imprisonment. At the time of her sentencing, Takagi was eight months pregnant.
Decision Direction indicates whether the decision expands or contracts expression based on an analysis of the case.
This decision contracts expression specifically through the imposition of a term of imprisonment and the use of criminal charges in response to instances of “fostering ill-will and hostility”. The use of criminal sanctions has a chilling effect of the exercise of freedom of expression, and, as noted in this Joint Declaration from freedom of expression special rapporteurs, should not be employed in situations where the definition of the crime uses vague and broad terms (such as “ill-will” which is impermissibly vague).
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.
Although the case does not have heavy precedential value since it was decided by a lower court, the speech restrictive rationale of the judge and admittedly deterrent punishment imposed on the accused person sends out a strong message to stakeholders in the jurisdiction.
Since the Sedition Act, 1948 of Malaysia is pari-materia to the sedition law in Singapore, the case could possibly negatively influence Sedition jurisprudence in Malaysia as well.
Let us know if you notice errors or if the case analysis needs revision.