Taking pictures or videos of ‘serious security incidents’ to be barred in Singapore under proposed law
Home Affairs Ministry cites terror attacks in Mumbai and Paris as cases where live broadcasts had compromised police operations
By Kelly Ng
To protect the secrecy of tactical operations in Singapore during serious incidents such as terrorist attacks, the police could soon get more powers to stop the public and the media from sharing information — including taking videos, pictures, audio-recordings, or text messages — about ongoing security operations.
Under the new Public Order and Safety (Special Powers) Bill introduced in Parliament, failing to comply with such a “communications stop order” is an offence that may warrant up to two years’ imprisonment and/or a fine of S$20,000 (US$15,163).
“Denying the terrorists access to information on police’s ongoing tactical operations to neutralise the attack is critical for the success of the operations,” said the Home Affairs Ministry (MHA) in a press release on the Bill.
It added: “Leakage of such information to the terrorists could endanger the lives of security officers and members of the public who are caught in the attack.”
However, it stressed that the order is a “special power which would only be used when the security situation calls for it”.
The ministry cited terror attacks on Mumbai and Paris, in 2008 and 2015 respectively, as cases where live broadcasts had compromised police operations.
During the Mumbai attacks which took place in multiple locations, including the Taj Mahal Palace Hotel, live broadcasts of security forces preparing to storm the hotel had allowed the gunmen to anticipate the actions of security forces. In the Paris case, a heavily-armed gunman watched live coverage of a raid in a kosher supermarket — where he had held several hostages — on various television channels and was in contact with journalists from French news channel BFMTV.
Some of the surviving hostages later sued BFMTV for endangering their lives by revealing their hiding spots within the store. Among other things, a broadcast journalist had reported that a woman was taking refuge in a coldroom and that seven people were hiding in the store’s basement.
A month after the attacks, a French audiovisual authority reprimanded 16 media organisations, declaring broadcasting such information while the terrorists were still a threat “risked seriously endangering the safety of the people held in the place”.
Nevertheless, social media platforms have also helped keep the public updated and be actively involved in the hunt for suspected terrorists, such as in the case of the Boston marathon bombings in 2013.
The MHA said the Bill also seeks to empower the police to take down or disable any unmanned aircraft, and autonomous vehicles and vessels around the incident area, regardless of their intention and activity. “Such (devices) can be used for surveillance by the terrorists, or even as weapons,” it said.
Currently, the police has powers to take them down only if they are clearly posing a threat to public safety and security.
If passed, the Bill will replace the existing Public Order (Preservation) Act (POPA) enacted in 1958 to provide the police “special powers” to deal with large-scale public disorder, such as communal riots. It will cover situations that “seriously threaten public safety”, even if there is no disorderliness — for example, in the immediate aftermath of a terrorist attack when the pursuit of terrorists is underway, but there is no large-scale public disorder.
Singapore continues to face a security threat by home-grown radicalised individuals and foreign terrorists who view it as a “prized target”, said the MHA.
“Attacks around the world have shown that the terrorists are continuously evolving their methods to inflict maximum casualties and deaths. It is therefore important to equip the police with powers to be able to respond swiftly and effectively to attacks of any scale and of varying tactics,” the ministry added.
These “special powers” in the Bill cannot be invoked for routine operations and can only be used under an order by the Home Affairs Minister. To authorise it, the minister must be of the opinion that a “serious incident” has occurred, or there is a threat of such an incident, and that the special powers are necessary to prevent it, reduce its impact, or control, restore or maintain public order.
Other provisions in the Bill include enabling the police to direct building owners to take certain actions — such as closing their premises, restricting entry and exit or providing officers with information like floor plans — to facilitate security operations. It will also empower the police to demand information from individuals who were in the proximity when the incident took place. In the case of a manhunt, for instance, bystanders are obliged to provide information on the identity and movements of the suspects that may be privy to, if asked by the police.
Building owners and individuals who fail to comply may be jailed up to two years and/or fined up to S$20,000.
Other provisions in POPA that will be adapted into the proposed new law include powers to impose curfews, conduct searches on individuals, vehicles and premises, and ministerial powers to suspend telecommunication services.