Popular platforms like Instagram, Facebook, and Twitter, are often used by people to express their thoughts and discuss socio-political issues.
However, some social media posts may be considered offensive to others, or may spread misinformation. In such circumstances, you may be charged for the content of your social media posts and be liable for certain offences.
In light of recent events, this article will discuss some potential offences in Singapore you may be liable for, in relation to three types of potentially offensive and false social media posts.
Types of Potentially Offensive and False Social Media Posts
1) Posts threatening racial and religious harmony in Singapore
You may have heard of the case of a 34-year old Malay man who posed as a Chinese female under the Twitter handle @SharonLiew86.
He had allegedly posted several racially offensive tweets using the fake identity, in which he made derogatory remarks against Indians to deliberately stoke racial tensions and anger. In 2019, he was also said to have created an insensitive tweet ridiculing the academic achievements of Malays in comparison to their Chinese counterparts.
The man was charged for committing acts against racial harmony under section 298A of the Penal Code after his real identity was established by the police.
If you were to make a social media post demeaning other races or religious groups, such posts may be seen as a threat to the racial and religious harmony in Singapore. You may therefore be charged under section 298A of the Penal Code, like the case above, for promoting hostility between different groups on grounds of religion or race.
Under this offence, you are liable if you knowingly make remarks or do anything that promotes disharmony or hatred between the different religious or racial groups in Singapore. The punishment for this offence is up to 3 years’ jail and/or a fine.
Another related offence you may be charged with is section 298 of the Penal Code which makes it illegal to utter words or do anything that can be seen or heard by any person, if done with the deliberate intention to offend that person’s racial or religious feelings.
For example, if you post a video of yourself making racist remarks, you may be guilty of this offence. This offence carries the same punishment as section 298A.
Read our other article for more information on the offences under sections 298 and 298A of the Penal Code.
Singapore takes racial and religious harmony very seriously. The authorities will not condone any act that deliberately incites racial or religious tensions and threatens the peace and harmony between different races and religions.
2) Posts showing contempt towards the Singapore courts and judiciary system
If you were to post inflammatory comments against the Singapore courts, or claim that the judiciary system is biased or corrupt, you may be charged with the offence of contempt of court.
Under section 3 of the Administration of Justice (Protection) Act (AJPA), you may be considered in contempt of court if you intentionally post anything that:
- Scandalises the court by portraying the judiciary to be improper and biased, and there is a risk that public confidence in the judiciary would be threatened
- Interferes, or poses a real risk of interference, with the administration of justice
- Interferes, or poses a real risk of interference, with the outcome of a pending court case
You may still be guilty of an offence even if you had neither intended the consequences of your actions, nor intended to scandalise the court.
Another notable case you may have seen in the news is that of Li Shengwu, who was charged for contempt of court due to a Facebook post he had made in 2017.
In the private post that had been set on a “Friends Only” setting, he had attached a link to a New York Times article while commenting that the Singapore government is “very litigious and has a pliant court system”.
By accusing the judiciary of being deferential towards the government, his post was said to be scandalising the judiciary and posing a real risk of undermining confidence in the administration of justice.
If you are found guilty of contempt of court, section 12 of the AJPA provides for different maximum jail terms and fines, depending on the level of court exercising the power to punish for contempt.
Where the power to punish is exercised by the High Court or the Court of Appeal, you may face a fine of up to S$100,000 and/or a jail term of up to 3 years.
On the other hand, where the power to punish is exercised by any other court, or you are being punished by the High Court for committing contempt in connection with proceedings in a State Court, Family Court or Youth Court, you may be punished with a fine of up to S$20,000 and/or up to 12 months’ jail.
If you are charged for contempt of court, there are 2 defences that may be applicable to you:
- The defence of innocent publication or distribution; or
- The defence of publication of your post outside of Singapore.
The defence of innocent publication or distribution
Under section 18 of the AJPA, if you had editorial responsibility or control over the publication of the social media post, you will not be guilty of contempt of court if the post was published without your consent or knowledge.
An example would be if you are in charge of your company’s Instagram account, but someone else managed to hack into the account to post comments scandalising the court.
Hence, this defence of innocent publication only applies if you are not the one who had created the social media post.
The defence of publication of your post outside of Singapore
Section 19 of the AJPA might apply to you if you had published the post while you were outside of Singapore.
Under this defence, you are not guilty of contempt of court in Singapore if you, in addition to you publishing the post outside of Singapore, did not know or have reason to believe that your post would be seen or heard by members of the public in Singapore.
3) Posts communicating falsehoods
Offences under Protection from Online Falsehoods and Manipulation Act
In the midst of the COVID-19 crisis, online platforms were rife with misinformation on the spread of the virus.
In one such case, a Facebook page run by Alex Tan titled “The States Times Review” had falsely claimed in January 2020 that Singapore had run out of face masks less than three days after the first confirmed case. He was issued a correction direction and made to remove the post containing the falsehood.
Under section 7 of the Protection from Online Falsehoods and Manipulation Act (POFMA), it is an offence to post online, whether in or outside of Singapore, news that you know or have reason to believe:
- Is a falsehood; and
- That the communication of it is likely to be prejudicial to Singapore’s security or national interests, or incite ill-will between different groups of persons.
If you are found guilty of posting fake news, as an individual, you are liable to be fined up to S$50,000 and/or 5 years’ jail. However, if you had used a fake online account or a bot to communicate fake news, you are liable to a fine of up to S$100,000 and/or up to 10 years’ jail instead.
For more information on the POFMA, you may wish to refer to our article on fake news laws in Singapore.
Offences under the Miscellaneous Offences (Public Order and Nuisance) Act
You may also be charged for communicating a false message under section 14D of the Miscellaneous Offences (Public Order and Nuisance) Act if your social media post contains anything which you know to be false or made up. The punishment is a fine of up to S$10,000 and/or up to a 3-year jail term.
In April 2020, Kenneth Lai was charged with posting a fake message about the supposed new COVID-19 measures. He had made the post in a public Facebook page named Taxiuncle, where he allegedly claimed that he had “intel” that Singapore would “proceed with more measures” from “this Saturday”.
He also falsely commented that food courts and coffee shops would close, and cautioned Singaporeans to “stock up on [their] stuff for the next month or so” as “[s]upermarkets will only open two days a week”.
His posts were said to have caused fear and public alarm, as they would likely lead to panic-buying in the middle of a serious pandemic. Lai was subsequently sentenced to 4 months’ jail.
Does It Matter whether the Social Media Post had been Set to Private?
As you might have guessed from the case on Li Shengwu, you can still be charged and found guilty of an offence even if you had set your social media post to private as long as the post can be seen by one or more persons other than yourself.
This is because your post can still be viewed by other members of the public in Singapore, which can then result in consequences that make you liable for any of the offences mentioned in this article.
We hope that this article has helped you become more aware of the offences you may be charged with in Singapore, and the penalties that follow for publishing social media posts that are potentially racially offensive, contemptuous or false.
The next time you decide to post new information on your social media platform, or express your opinions online, remember to be sensitive with your words and to exercise caution in what you choose to post.