Gag orders in Singapore: Whose identities are being protected?

  • Generally, the law courts operate transparently to show that justice should be seen to be done, but at times, gag orders are imposed during proceedings to protect the identity of victims or other innocent parties.Ā 
  • This is not, in any way, sought to protect the interests of the accused person but inadvertently it does, when the identification of the accused is likely to lead to the identification of the victims.Ā 
  • TheHomeGround Asia takes a look at the latest case and speak to lawyers to see if gag order is justified when the victims are already adults when they take the perpetrator to task.

[UPDATE 12 July 2022: We have updated the article with the latest ruling by the Court of Appeal on the parents of the boy who was scalded to death.]

Once the gag order is imposed, journalists as well as members of the public are not allowed to share information and photographs, or share a post in breach of the order that would identify those named. (Photo source: Canva)
Once the gag order is imposed, journalists as well as members of the public are not allowed to share information and photographs, or share a post in breach of the order that would identify those named. (Photo source: Canva)

The man committed the sex act on his victims in 2005 and 2007.

The boys were aged between 14 and 15 at the time of the offences.Ā 

But it was only last year that his offences were reported when he returned to Singapore to renew his missionary visa in March. The victims are now adults in their late 20s.

So the questions in this recent case are: Why is there a gag order imposed when the victims are now adults? And is this to protect the victims still or the particular Catholic order?

Is it then timely to reconsider the guiding principles for gag orders in order to balance an open justice system and public interest against protecting sexual predators?Ā 

The recent case in question

A prominent figure in the local Catholic community was sentenced to five years jail for sexual offences against two teenage boys. The Singaporean man, a member of a Catholic order, had taken a vow of celibacy and has never married. But he is not a priest, according to court documents.

The man pleaded guilty to one charge of carnal intercourse against the order of nature and one charge of committing an indecent act with a young person.

It was only in 2009 that the first victim, struggling emotionally and socially and felt “disgusted” about the sexual acts the offender had done, confided in the sector leader of the Catholic order in Singapore. But he refused to escalate the matter.Ā 

The offender was questioned by his religious superior about the allegations and sent to the United States for a six-month therapy programme at an institute that same year before his posting to another country where his work did not involve minors.

It was in 2020 when he returned to renew his missionary visa, that his history was brought to the attention of the board of the school to which he was linked and following an internal inquiry, the chairman of the school board lodged a police report in March 2021.

The man was arrested in January 2022.

Journalists are prohibited from sharing information and photographs that would identify those named in the gag order and violating the order will land you in jail for up to a year, a fine of up to S$5,000, or both. (Photo source: GK Legal)

During the court proceedings, the identity of the victims is protected by gag order. The accused also cannot be named due to gag orders prohibiting the publication of his name, designation, appointment and a school to which he was linked.

His defence lawyer, when asking for a shorter jail term, said the two victims were now working adults with their own families. He said they had “moved on” with their lives and were “doing well”, with no evidence to suggest they had been “marred” by the experience.

Like the defence lawyer said, the two victims are now working adults. If that is the case, then why the gag order? This inadvertently protects the perpetrator in this crime.

What is a gag order and how it applies

According to Dr Eugene Tan, an associate professor of Law at the Singapore Management University (SMU), gag orders are issued by a court either on its own volition or upon a successful application by a litigant. They are primarily intended to, and most commonly used to, protect a victim of a crime.

Once imposed, journalists as well as members of the public are not allowed to share information and photographs that would identify those named in the order. Violating it will land you in jail for up to a year, a fine of up to S$5,000, or both. This also applies to those who share a post in breach of the gag order.

Even lawyers are not spared.Ā 

Veteran criminal lawyer Eugene Thuraisingam was, on 22 April, charged with two counts of breaching a gag order in the case of a doctor who was later acquitted of molestation. Mr Thuraisingamā€™s team was defending the physician in the case.Ā 

According to the charge sheets, Mr Thuraisingam was charged with two counts of publishing transcripts of the court proceedings that contained unredacted information likely to lead to the identification of the complainant. He allegedly did so by instructing his associate Johannes Hadi to distribute these transcripts to the press in March and August 2021.

In such cases, the identity of the accused may also be anonymous to prevent anyone from identifying the victim. The intention of the courts here is not to protect the offender. And as gag orders detract from open justice, they should be issued judiciously, and cover no more than ā€œnecessary to serve the ends of justiceā€.

Dr Tan says gag orders are fact-sensitive, that is, ā€œthe peculiar circumstances of each case and of the parties and victims all play a part in the decision-making by a court. Apparent inconsistencies are often because of the differences in one case to anotherā€.

ā€œA victim is often entitled to his or her privacy and protection of the wellbeing even if a crime had been committed against him or her more than a decade ago. Without gag orders, there is the public interest concern whether victims would be willing to come forward and report a crime,ā€ he says.

Both Dr Tan and Ms Gloria James-Civetta, head lawyer at Gloria James-Civetta and Co, say the possibility that a victim may be subjected to “opprobrium, ridicule, and prejudice cannot be understated”.

Ms James-Civetta adds that some purposes of gag orders also include encouraging the witnesses and/or victims to testify ā€œby guarding them against public scrutiny, and minimising re-victimisation by sparing victims further trauma of unwanted public scrutinyā€.

ā€œIt is important to bear in mind that even if the person is a victim and not the accused person, having their identities revealed to the public may lead to social stigma, such as being labeled a sexual assault victim and/or victim-blaming comments,ā€ she says.

Partial lifting of gag order not acceded

Even then, the Catholic Church had also asked for the gag order of the recent sexual abuse case to be partially lifted to identify the offender.

In a statement on 5 June to the media, the Roman Catholic Archdiocese of Singapore said it had requested the Attorney-General’s Chambers (AGC) to partially lift the gag order, so the identity of the offender, the religious order and details of the offender’s subsequent treatment and postings can be made known.

“The AGC informed (us) that they had carefully considered our request but were unable to accede to it,” said the Catholic Church.

In a statement to the mainstream media the next day, on 6 June, the AGC said it considers every request to lift a gag order carefully as victims’ interests are paramount, and that in this instance, it could not accede to the request.

It said it applied for the gag order to protect the identity of the victims and it was not, in any way, sought to protect the interests of the accused person, or of the Catholic order involved.

“The gag order covered the identity of the accused because, based on the facts and circumstances of the case, the identification of the accused was likely to lead to the identification of the victims,” said the AGC.

Then what are the principles governing gag orders?Ā 

According to the law, a gag order may be a statutory restriction or a court-ordered restriction on publication. Statutory restrictions include sections of the Children and Young Persons Act 1993 (CYPA) which protect children and young persons; section 153(4) of the Womenā€™s Charter, which protects women and girls who are the alleged victims of certain serious sexual offences; and section 425A of the Criminal Procedure Code 2010, which protects the complainant or alleged victim of a sexual offence or child abuse offence.

Three similar cases, only two sets of parents named

Under court-ordered restrictions, the Court has a wide discretionary power to issue a gag order on any witnessā€™ identity.

Gag orders in Singapore: Whose identities are being protected?
Police gathering evidence in the Chin Swee Road flat where a couple killed their two-year-old daughter, whose burnt remains were found in a metal pot five years later. (Photo source: STOMP)

In a 2019 high-profile Chin Swee Road murder case, a gag order was imposed on the names of the couple accused of killing their two-year-old daughter in 2014. Her remains were only found on 10 September 2019, after police received a call for help at Block 52 Chin Swee Road.

The AGC said then that the order restrained the publication of the name, address, photograph, any evidence or any other thing likely to lead to the identification of the victim or accused persons.

Yet in 2020, the High Court overturned a gag order imposed in a separate case involving a father who killed his two-year-old daughter while suffering from depression. This rare move came after the prosecution asked for the gag order, wrongly imposed in June that year by a magistrate, to be lifted on the grounds that the victim was dead.

High Court quashes gag order wrongly imposed in case of a man who killed his two-year-old daughter. (Photo source: The Straits Times)

Teo Johnboy John killed his daughter Ashley Clare in June 2019. He was going through divorce proceedings with his former wife and was suffering from major depressive disorder.

So in what way are the two cases different?Ā 

Both girls are dead.

And if you say the gag order imposed on the Chin Swee case was to protect the young siblings of the dead girl, then what about this other case tried in the same year?

In 2019, a young couple stood trial for killing their five-year-old son three years earlier. Before dying from severe scald injuries and blunt force trauma to the head, the boy had been pinched with pliers, burned with a heated spoon and confined in a cage meant for a cat.

The couple were named despite having other children.Ā 

Azlin Arujunah and Ridzuan Mega Abdul Rahman were sentenced to 27 years each for causing the death of their five-year-old son. (Photo source: Facebook)

In its report, CNA wrote that his parents Azlin Arujunah and Ridzuan Mega Abdul Rahman had several other children and lived with some of them in a one-room rental flat. They were sentenced to 27 years each for grievous abusing after being acquitted of murder and convicted of the lesser charge.

On 12 July, the Court of Appeals overturned the original sentences handed down by the High Court.

Azlin now faces the death sentence or life imprisonment after the apex court found her guilty of murder and Ridzuan had his jail term for causing grievous hurt increased to life imprisonment.

So, what are the principles governing gag orders? Why are gag orders different for different cases?

Ms James-Civetta says that the imposition of a gag order is discretionary.Ā Ā 

ā€œWhile it may appear to a layperson that the Courts are being inconsistent, it is rather the case that the Courts assess each application on a case-by-case basis and a gag order is only imposed where necessary,ā€ she says.

ā€œEven when a gag order is imposed, the scope of the gag order is to be determined by the Court on an individual basis – bearing in mind that the scope has to be sufficient to protect the victims and/or witnesses. This is why the scope of the gag orders can be different when comparing different cases,ā€ she adds.

Even so, perhaps the law courts should take another look at the principles governing gag orders and ensure that the public understands the decision behind these orders issued and not presume they are done in the bid to protect victims that they end up inadvertently shielding the perpetrators.

RELATED: Sexual assault in the metaverse: Can victims turn to present-day law for justice?

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