Letter to IMDA on the proposed Films Act amendments

Submitted this on the dot – definitely not my best writing, and not properly proofread, but I’ve been unwell over the last couple of days, so it is what it is.

 


Ms. Lee Ee Jia Director (Media Policy)
Info-communications Media Development Authority
(Attn: Ms. Tee Yock Sian)

 Dear Ms. Lee,

              I am writing as a concerned citizen regarding the proposed amendments to the Films Act and IMDA’s public consultation process.

1.      Proposed penalties in Section 21 (Annex pg 37) are applied too broadly.

              According to the proposed amendments:

12. Section 21 of the Films Act is amended —
(a) by deleting subsection (1) and substituting the following subsections:
“(1) A person commits an offence if —

(a) the person —
(i) distributes or publicly exhibits an unclassified film; or
(ii) has in the person’s possession a film that is an unclassified film, with the intention of distributing or publicly exhibiting the film;
and
(b) the person knows or ought reasonably to have known that, or is reckless as to whether, the film is an unclassified film.

The amendments also go on to state that anyone found guilty of an offence under these subsections are liable to a fine not exceeding $40,000 or to imprisonment for a term not exceeding 6 months or to both.

             These amendments are problematic on many counts, the first of which is making the intention of doing something illegal liable to the same penalties as having committed the offence. This is as absurd as making someone who owns a lockpick liable to the same penalties as someone who has used a lockpick to break into a house. Similarly, the addition of the term “is reckless as to” is also something that unfairly expands the range of people liable to be charged for this offence.

 

2.      Greater transparency regarding rationale for penalties in Section 21.

             I also call on IMDA to give a public statement on the following questions:

  • How did IMDA arrive at $40,000 as the maximum fine under this section?
  • How did IMDA arrive at 6 months as the maximum jail term under this section?
  • How does the distribution or exhibition of an unclassified film merit this fine and jail term?
  • What are the criteria by which IMDA determines the eventual fine and jail term for an offence under this section?
  • How does the nature of any given unclassified film determine the severity of the penalty? For example, under its proposed amendments, would exhibiting a party political film be treated by IMDA as more or less severe than exhibiting a child pornography film?

 

3.      Amendments permit IMDA overly broad powers of seizure.

              In Section 21 of the existing Films Act (pgs 15-16), IMDA already has substantial powers to enter any place where unclassified films are kept or about to be exhibited. As it stands, the Films Act empowers IMDA to examine the film, and only seize the film and any equipment used if on such examination he has reasonable grounds for believing that an offence under this section has been or is about to be committed”. While the “reasonable grounds” is still a vague term which could be applied over-broadly, the proposed amendments to Section 23 (Annex pg 46) allows IMDA to break and enter with even more impunity, as all it needs is for the IMDA officers to “[have] reason to suspect that the film, advertisement, equipment or material is evidence of an offence under this Act or any of its subsidiary legislation”.

              Furthermore, by expanding the scope of items from the existing Films Act’s “films and equipment” to “any material” or “any other thing”, the proposed amendments allow IMDA complete and total leeway to seize literally anything in the spaces they enter with very little justification – not just “film, advertisement, equipment or material”, but

  • “any document or any other thing”
  • “a disk, tape or other storage device that can be used or associated with the equipment”.

Moreover, IMDA does not need more than “reason to suspect” that a given object is evidence – so long as something “contains information relevant to the investigation”, it can be seized. This makes it easy for IMDA to unjustly and arbitrarily damage the livelihoods and invade the privacy of anyone whose possessions happen to be in that space.

 

4.      Scrap all existing and proposed conditions for forfeiture of films, advertisement, equipment or materials seized

At first glance, the proposed section 28A may seem better than the current section 21 of the Films Act (pg 16), which states that:

(3) Any film and equipment seized under subsection (2) in respect of which any person has been convicted under this section shall be forfeited and shall be destroyed or otherwise disposed of in such manner as the Minister may direct.

However, we have already established that the proposed amendments expand the range of items IMDA is permitted to seize and require less justification upon which to do so. Furthermore, according to section 28A of the proposed amendments (Annex pg 59):

28A. (2) If —

(a) no prosecution is instituted with regard to any film, advertisement for a film, equipment or material which has been seized under section 23A(1); or
(b) no claim is made for that film, advertisement, equipment or material under section 23A(8),
the film, advertisement, equipment or material item is deemed to be forfeited.

              Both subsections of this proposed amendment should be scrapped, as they expand the government’s power to hold onto objects without being required to prove that they are clearly connected to the commission of an offence. If no prosecution is instituted with regard to the films, equipment and materials seized, it is unjust to forfeit them. Only items used in the commission of offences after conviction should be deemed to be forfeited.

              As for 28A(2)(b), it gives too little time for people to claim seized items. The 48 hours given under section 23A(8) is too little if the people whose items have been seized are dealing with police investigations and/or have been denied access to their devices. Given that the objects seized are highly likely to include communication devices, this clause does not give people sufficient time to make arrangements to claim their seized objects. Moreover, this could lead to scenarios such as people unconnected to the offence having their important items seized and forfeited simply because they happened to be present when IMDA entered.

              Furthermore, this gives IMDA the leeway to impose penalties that go far beyond the aim of preventing or penalising the distribution or public exhibition of unclassified films – it essentially allows the government to forfeit every item they can get hold of regardless of whether an offence has been committed. The government should not have the leeway to keep or dispose of every single object owned by any person, regardless of their involvement in the offence; everyone should be left with the means to continue legal economic and personal activities

 

5.      Contradictions in statements.

Something which stood out to me upon reading both the 15-page document summarising the amendments and the 92-page document was the contradictions in their statements. On page 8 of the public consultation document, it is stated:

2.21 In keeping with the intent of focusing our regulatory efforts on the distribution and public exhibition of films, MCI/IMDA propose to narrow the classification scope so that only films intended for distribution and public exhibition need to be classified. However, for films containing content that is against the public interest, IMDA will have the power to require any film to be submitted for classification.

              Chong Ja Ian’s submission has already raised questions about the vagueness of terms like “public interest” and “national security”, and how this might lead to arbitrary applications of the law. My questions are somewhat related:

  • How does IMDA determine whether a film that is not distributed or publicly exhibited is against public interest?
  • Why would a film not intended for distribution or public exhibition require classification even if it contains content that IMDA objects to?

I call upon IMDA to be consistent with its assertion that it proposes to narrow the classification scope. Films not intended for distribution or public exhibition should not be liable to being called in for classification.

 

6.      Appeals deemed to undermine National Security should not be determined solely by the Minister.

              I second the changes called for in Jason SOo’s petition “Say YES to Film Ratings that are transparent, accountable, and fair”. While I understand that it is effective and necessary to cut bureaucratic procedures in certain contexts, the classification of a film should not be treated as requiring the same level of urgency as declaring a state of emergency or defending the country against external attacks.

 

7.      Public consultation process should be extended and made more accessible.

For those who want to fully engage with the process needed to [grammar/typo – it should be “Those who want to fully engage with the process needed to:]

1.       Read through the following documents:
a.       15-page summary
b.       92-page annex
c.       30-page existing Films Act

2.       Process each document
3.       Cross-reference the documents
4.       Look up legal terminology
5.       Discuss thoughts with those around them / participate in unofficial discussions

               For these proposed amendments, IMDA initially gave 11 days for the public to engage, before extending the consultation process till December 30th. It is still too short a time for people to engage with this legislation while juggling their other professional and domestic commitments. Furthermore, since many people will have made holiday plans long before the release of the proposed amendments, the short consultation period excludes many people. IMDA should also not need public pressure to extend the consultation period to a mere 26 days.

              IMDA should also go beyond the 15-page summary to provide a glossary of the addition of new terms, such as “is reckless as to” and “reason to suspect”. The 15-page summary should also reflect key changes more accurately; there was no mention of the expanded police powers.

               All these documents should also be translated into Chinese, Malay, and Tamil, so as to make them accessible to non-English-speaking Singaporeans.

 

8.      Conclusion

              In the light of the plethora of issues in both the amendments and the consultation process, IMDA should withhold these proposed amendments and focus on revising their consultation process.

               I am happy for IMDA to make this submission public together with my name. However, I request that IMDA kindly refrain from publishing any of my personal contact details.

 

Yours sincerely,
Teng Qian Xi


 

Other individual and group responses I found illuminating:

SG Film Community’s Position Paper

Dr Kevin Y. L. Tan and Dr Ang Peng Hwa on the legal ramifications, explaining in terrifying detail the ways the amendments could be used against us

Ian Chong’s letter

Martyn See’s post

Choo Zheng Xi op-ed: Proposed Films Act amendments: Leave policing to the police

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