21 July 2010

British author arrested for book on death penalty; film on political prisoners banned

British journalist Alan Shadrake is facing up to two years in prison for his book on the death penalty in Singapore.
British journalist Alan Shadrake is facing up to two years in prison for his book on the death penalty in Singapore.
Alan Shadrake
The Singapore government's pattern of repressing free expression continues with the recent arrest of a British journalist for writing a book critical of the city-state's death penalty, and the ban of a film about ex-political prisoners by a Singaporean filmmaker, report the Southeast Asian Press Alliance (SEAPA), Reporters Without Borders (RSF) and Amnesty International.

Alan Shadrake, 75, is the latest in a long list of international journalists and newspapers charged after publishing critical opinion of Singapore's leaders. He was arrested on 18 July while in Singapore to promote his book, "Once a Jolly Hangman: Singapore Justice in the Dock." He is facing charges of defamation and contempt of court. Freed on bail on 19 July, Shadrake is due to appear before the Singapore high court on 30 July. If he is found guilty of criminal defamation, he could face up to two years in prison and a large fine. The case is an abuse of judicial authority, says RSF.

The book contains interviews with a former executioner, human rights activists, lawyers and former police officers on cases involving capital punishment in Singapore. The government doesn't like to release statistics about the death penalty, so the publishers' claim that the book "cuts through the façade of official silence to reveal disturbing truths about Singapore's use of the death penalty," has "clearly ruffled some feathers," writes British journalist Ben Bland for Index on Censorship. Bland was denied a visa and forced to leave Singapore last October after working in the city-state for a year as a freelance journalist.

According to "The Guardian", after being released, Shadrake told reporters: "I'm feeling pretty shaken at the moment... I've been sitting at a desk being interrogated all day long explaining all the chapters of the book: going into the history of the book, my research, why I did the book."

The government's heavy-handed approach sends a clear message that anyone thinking of "research and debate about sensitive issues such as the death penalty risks severe consequences," says Bland.

But the book has not been banned. Although it has been removed from one of Singapore's biggest bookshops, it will apparently be available in Singapore's National Library to reference readers, although it cannot be borrowed.

In another episode of censorship, a film by Singaporean filmmaker Martyn See was banned - effective 14 July - because it was considered "contrary to public interest." The Media Development Authority (MDA), which also made the police complaint that led to Shadrake's arrest, ordered See to remove all digital copies of the film uploaded on YouTube and his own blog. The film, "Ex-political prisoner speaks out in Singapore" or "Dr. Lim Hock Siew", registered 49,903 views as of 12 July.

The Singapore government said See's film "gives a distorted and misleading portrayal of Dr. Lim's arrests and detention under the Internal Security Act (ISA) in 1963." This is the second of See's films to be barred from being publicly shown in Singapore.

Amnesty International also reports that Singapore Democratic Party leader Dr. Chee Soon Juan - who has been repeatedly arrested and fined - was convicted of yet another offence. He was charged with illegally "giving a public address" in 2006, and fined S$5,000 or five weeks in prison, because he asked people to buy his party's newspaper when they walked by.

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