No hostage drama here

A hostage-taking situation just like what happened in Manila last Monday (23 August 2010) is one of the scenarios that was used to justify the Public Order Act, Section 38 of which empowers the police to prohibit photography and videography. At the second reading of the bill on 13 April 2009, Second Minister for Home Affairs K Shanmugam said,

There are also specific situations where recording an on-going incident can potentially jeopardise the success of security operations or the safety of officers.  The recent Mumbai terrorist incident is a case in point, where journalists and private individuals were able to film the operations of security forces as the events unfolded.  Potentially, indiscriminate filming could give information to the terrorists about what security forces were doing or planning to do, jeopardise rescue operations, and harm the lives of the victims and the officers conducting the rescue.

He was referring to the standoff at the Oberoi Hotel in Mumbai in November 2008, one of several simultaneous attacks around the city mounted by gunmen with alleged links to Islamist organisations.

In the Manila incident, in which 8 hostages were killed, television cameramen and reporters were on scene providing live coverage through almost all the eleven hours it took to end the crisis. It was reported that these broadcasts could be received on board the bus held by hostage-taker Rolando Mendoza, and through them, he could see where security officers were as they surrounded the vehicle. This severely compromised police operations. Here’s an example of the live coverage from one of the many TV stations:

Let me isolate one scene (at 3 min 52 sec)  from the above which shows policemen trying to sneak up close to the bus, but this would have been defeated when, via television, Mendoza himself could see them approaching.

The same thing had happened in Mumbai, and again, it was said to have been a huge hindrance to security personnel.

In fact, in Manila, the ubiquity of cameras and reporters reached incredible heights. Here’s a video grab (at 07 min 37 sec) from another I found on Youtube showing the hostage-taker’s brother, Gregorio Mendoza, negotiating  over the phone with him.

Was every word uttered in the negotiation process broadcast live?

* * * * *

Should such a crisis occur in Singapore, Section 38 of the Public Order Act would surely be invoked. For the benefit of the public, I will provide the text of subsections 1 to 4 of Section 38:

Seizure of films of law enforcement activities

38. —(1)   Any police officer of or above the rank of sergeant, or any CPIB officer, narcotics officer, intelligence officer or immigration officer, if satisfied upon information and after such further inquiry as he thinks necessary, that any person —

(a) is making, has made or is about to make;

(b) is exhibiting or communicating or is about to exhibit or communicate; or

(c) has in his possession,

any film or picture containing a record of any law enforcement activities, and he reasonably believes that the film or picture, if exhibited or communicated (whether to the public or any section thereof or otherwise) —

(i) prejudices the effective conduct of an ongoing law enforcement operation or investigation, or any intelligence operation; or

(ii) endangers or will endanger the safety of any law enforcement officer in an ongoing law enforcement operation or investigation, or any intelligence operation,

he may exercise any of the powers specified in subsection (2).

(2)   A police officer of or above the rank of sergeant, a CPIB officer, a narcotics officer, an intelligence officer or an immigration officer may —

(a) direct the person reasonably believed to be making, exhibiting or communicating a film or picture or about to do so to immediately cease making, exhibiting or communicating the film, and either to immediately delete, erase or otherwise destroy the film or picture or to surrender the film or picture to the police officer, CPIB officer, narcotics officer, intelligence officer or immigration officer, as the case may be;

(b) without warrant, search any person whom he has reason to believe is in possession of a film or picture referred to in subsection (1);

(c) without warrant, and with such assistance and by such force as is necessary, by night or by day, enter and search any place where he has reason to believe any film or picture referred to in subsection (1) is kept; or

(d) without warrant, and with such assistance and by such force as is necessary, seize any film or picture referred to in subsection (1) and any copy thereof, and any equipment (including a handphone) used or about to be used in the making, exhibition or communication of the film or picture,

and take into custody any person reasonably believed to be in possession thereof.

(3)   Any film, picture and any equipment (including a handphone) used in the making, exhibition or communication of the film or picture may be forfeited and shall be destroyed or otherwise disposed of in such manner as the Commissioner may direct.

(4)   Where a person to whom a direction under subsection (2)(a) is given fails to comply with the direction, he shall be guilty of an offence and shall be liable on conviction to a fine not exceeding $20,000 or to imprisonment for a term not exceeding 12 months or to both.

I would emphasise this: For a police officer, etc, to order you to stop filming and delete your pictures, he must have reason to believe that it would prejudice a law enforcement operation. He cannot do it capriciously.

Shanmugam himself said this when moving the bill:

These powers are not intended to be used to prohibit the filming of routine Police work or events.  These powers are only intended to provide protection to officers and preserve the integrity of sensitive operations.  If a police officer is misconducting himself, our approach is that the public can film such acts of misconduct.  The film will be relied upon for investigation and disciplinary action if warranted.

Are these assurances good enough? I will come back to this later.

* * * * *

The biggest fallout from the coverage of the Manila incident is, arguably, not that the police operation was compromised, though I’m sure it was. The chief fallout was how the world could see the incompetence of the police in handling the situation. Officers were poorly equipped. Some had neither bullet-proof vests nor helmets. They had the wrong weapons — apparently short-barrelled firearms should have been issued. The excruciatingly ineffective attempt to break down the door with a sledgehammer was nearly farcical.

There were also plenty of missed opportunities for snipers to act, for example, as seen in the first of two videos attached to this New York Times blog. Rolando Mendoza, armed with an M16 rifle, appears at the door for at least six seconds starting at the 12th second of the video, and is seen again at a window for at least another four seconds at the 48th second.

So there is something to be said about filming, for we might not have known how poor the performance of the Manila police was without the footage. Surely the competence of police officers is a matter of public interest.

And this is where there would be difference if a hostage crisis occurred in Singapore. No, not over competency. I will not assert that there will be a difference in competency; we have no recent experience to go by and hence we cannot know how capable our police officers are. They may do a better job than the Filipinos, or they may not. The difference will be that filming will surely not be allowed. We may well have hostage-taking and we may well have bumbling police officers, but as the title of this essay suggests, there’ll be no “drama” to watch.

Without a publicly available video record of operations, how will we know whether they have done their best? How will we know if they are any better than their cousins in Manila?

Therefore: Is a blanket ban on filming really in the public interest?

I would suggest this: Filming should  be allowed, but broadcast should be delayed till the operation is over. The law actually allows this distinction to be made. Section 38(2)(a) empowers an officer to order the cameraman “to immediately cease making, exhibiting or communicating the film”. Thus, photos and videos can be allowed to be taken, but barred from being exhibited or communicated till later. As for private individuals capturing events on their cellphone, they should be warned that if they sent the pictures to the hostage taker, they could be prosecuted for aiding and abetting.

The above suggestion would better fulfill Shanmugam’s statement that films of police misconduct are useful.

* * * * *

Yet, the average person knows that Shanmugam’s words are already meaningless. As anybody who has attempted to take a picture of a government building on any peaceful day will know, police officers, often well below the rank of sergeant — sometimes even auxiliary police officers — quite frequently come up to you and demand that you stop filming and delete your pictures on the spot. Nobody actually knows what law they are acting under, but the officers seem to operate on the assumption that the public must not be allowed to do that, and that they have a right to so throw their weight around.

Perhaps it has something to do with the fear that you are a terrorist casing a joint for future bombing. But this is clearly going way overboard. There are plenty of other, better targets for terrorists if they really set their minds to it, and anyway, one does not need a photo of a building to decide to bomb it.

But what such police actions show is that on the one hand we have the government saying to Parliament that there is no intention “to prohibit the filming of routine Police work”, on the other hand, there are in fact orders issued to do just that. Guarding a government building surely must be routine.

Shanmugam should be called upon to explain why his words in Parliament are contradicted by the actual behaviour of the officers under him. Even if different laws apply, why is the spirit of one contradicted by another? What are the secret instructions that he has given to those officers that are so at variance from the soothing assurances he gave the public?

17 Responses to “No hostage drama here”


  1. 1 Plumber 29 August 2010 at 16:58

    Good analysis and well thought through arguement.

  2. 2 beast686 29 August 2010 at 17:46

    In such a situation, sometimes the media should have enough cow sense not to disseminate the type of information which should be broadcast during the hostage crisis.

    In any case, I agree with your analysis that sensitive information should only allowed by law to be released after the situation is over. This is one of the exceptions which should be made with regards to freedom of speech. Lives are at stake here.

  3. 3 TinyRedLeaf 29 August 2010 at 21:27

    To some extent, the handling of Shafie Goh’s case ought already to raise questions about the pros and cons of the Public Order Act. By Shanmugam’s own admission, both parties could have handled the situation better, which suggests a potential for police officers to overstep their powers.

    That said, while I agree very broadly with what you wrote, this passage: “Yet, the average person knows that Shanmugam’s words are already meaningless. As anybody who has attempted to take a picture of a government building on any peaceful day will know, police officers, often well below the rank of sergeant — sometimes even auxiliary police officers — quite frequently come up to you and demand that you stop filming and delete your pictures on the spot.”

    …is potentially libellous, unless you can actually produce evidence of such incidents. It is not a very helpful anecdote because, while we can all claim to have had similar experiences, in the absence of a validated list of them, we have no case against the authorities.

    Furthermore, it’s very clear that police and security guards have no power, under the law, to stop people from taking photographs in public places. They definitely do not have the right to confiscate cameras or even order deletion of photographs they find objectionable. As you’ve said, when such incidents happen, more often than not, we’re dealing with an overzealous security or police officer who is not as informed about his powers as he should be. In which case, best to make the incident as public as possible, to highlight an abuse of power.

    My guess? Such an officer would back off the moment you highlight the limit of his power, on the spot. A photographer friend of mine did as much, and got away vindicated.

  4. 4 Hahaha 29 August 2010 at 21:50

    I was thinking that stopping the photography of public buildings does not reduce the risk of terrorist attacks significantly. After all, clear satellite maps and ground building photos are available on Google Maps.

  5. 5 prettyplace 29 August 2010 at 23:51

    Good thought provoking article.

    Its a sad ending in Manila, I think the police themselves did not expect such an outcome. I think half way thru, things turned ugly.

    By the way, it did happen once in Singapore. Changi Airport.
    Bunch of Pakistanis took passengers in SQ hostage.
    The SOF team took about 3 to 4 hrs to take them out all, without injuring any passengers. Its super well trained here with the best equipments and to counter the SOF, they have the STAR team as well now.

    However, I must add, the Pakistanis were a bunch of jokers, who knew nothing about Singapore. They had SQ provided forks & fire-crackers.

    • 6 Chipper 30 August 2010 at 18:50

      Actually the SOF took 30 seconds to clear out SQ117 once the order was given to storm.

      But I agree, strictly speaking in terms of equipment and training (since it’s true we’ve no recent comparable experience), I think it’s clear that we’d surpass the Filipino SWAT team.

      @Alex

      Regarding the filming of government buildings, their powers to stop you might come from the Protected Places and Protected Areas Act, and yes, auxiliary police might be empowered too.

      Authorisation of guards and watchmen.
      3. The Commissioner of Police, any divisional police officer and any police officer of or above the rank of assistant superintendent empowered in that behalf by the Commissioner of Police or a divisional police officer, may authorise any person performing the duties of a guard or watchman in a protected area or a protected place to exercise the powers of an authorised officer under this Act.

      4. —(1) If as respects any area it appears to the Minister to be necessary or expedient that special measures should be taken to control the movements and conduct of persons therein he may by order declare that area to be a protected area for the purposes of this Act.

      (2) Any person who is in any protected area shall comply with such directions for regulating his movement and conduct as may be given by an authorised officer, and an authorised officer may search any person entering, or seeking to enter, or being in, a protected area, and may detain any such person for the purpose of searching him.

  6. 7 George 30 August 2010 at 10:23

    “Such an officer would back off the moment you highlight the limit of his power, on the spot. A photographer friend of mine did as much, and got away vindicated.”

    IMO it would be best practice to require by law or PGO to require the policeman to actually quote the law he is about to enforce on the person. This will among others ensure that our policemen knows the law they are required to enforce and the actual powers/limits bestowed on them by the said law. The person concerned would also be clear on the purpose and objective of the policemen concerned.

  7. 8 Vernon Voon 30 August 2010 at 10:41

    With due respect, allowing a videographer to film but not exhibit the film instantaneously may be a line to thin to manage. Who is to know if the videographer did not covertly transmit the images to the hostage taker in the bus except the videographer and the hostage taker himself, and probably the hostages? Far better to allow only accredited media to do the job, or in Singapore’s efficiently minded government, to trust them to do a good job and eliminate videos and its attendant possible backfiring, altogether.

  8. 9 Anders 30 August 2010 at 13:16

    TinyRedLeaf:

    “…is potentially libellous, unless you can actually produce evidence of such incidents. It is not a very helpful anecdote because, while we can all claim to have had similar experiences, in the absence of a validated list of them, we have no case against the authorities.”

    Not having a case and/or not being able to prove, is not the same as libel. An accuser speaking in good faith, true or false, should not be made criminal just because he can’t prove his claim.

  9. 10 Anders 30 August 2010 at 13:19

    Actually, I very often see this confusion appear:
    unproven accusation = libel

    Maybe something for YB, with his clear pedagogical talent, to clear up.

  10. 11 yawningbread 31 August 2010 at 02:34

    Chipper, 30 August, 18:50 — Somehow I don’t think so. There are fenced places with signs showing somebody shooting an intruder, and I think it is those places that come under the Protected Places and Protected Areas Act. Ministry buildings, etc do not generally carry these signs, and anyway, I’m referring to taking photos from the outside.

  11. 12 yawningbread 31 August 2010 at 02:57

    Anders – indeed, “libel” or “slander” is such speech that (a) is untrue AND (b) harms or diminishes the reputation of a person. In addition there is also the defence of fair comment, and latitude for fair comment is much greater when the comment is about a public personality.

    E.g. if an actress hogs the limelight, and regularly appears in highly experimental dresses, and somebody remarks that she has very bad dress sense, that would not be libel. It’s fair comment.

    E.g. if a banker allows his bad loans book to rise worryingly and somebody says he is an imprudent banker, it’s almost surely fair comment again.

    E.g. if unemployment is going up yet the minister says the economy is rebounding, and then somebody says the minister is engaging in spin, it too is fair comment.

    It is more likely libel when one ascribes malicious motives or defects of character that are not true. E.g. “The minister knowingly lied”, or “The banker hid a bad loan from the regulators”.

  12. 13 TinyRedLeaf 31 August 2010 at 09:33

    There is a reason I said “potentially”. As the very recent example with Abdul Malik shows, if a statement can be interpreted to have malicious content, it would be.

    As far as I recall, the claimant doesn’t even have to prove the malicious intent. He needs only show that the statement itself is capable of harming his reputation. The main defence available is to show then that the statement has some basis in fact, thus making it “fair comment”.

    All this is besides the point: So long as an individual isn’t specifically indentified, there isn’t actually libel or defamation. The only organisations or groups of people I can immediately think of that claim to be scandalised by other people’s statement would be the Courts — they can claim contempt against the judicial system.

    I did raise the concern, however, because the paragraph is jarring in context with the rest of the essay. It is based on hearsay and, of course, subjective opinion, the implication that all guards at public buildings are abusing their powers with respect to “innocent” photographers. As it turns out, Chipper shows that the guards may, in effect, have some measure of legitimate power to act in this case.

    Still, the second clause does say: “Any person who is in any protected area shall comply with such directions”

    If I’m standing on a public street, in public space, taking pictures of a government building on the other side of the street, said guards have no authority to stop me. In fact, if they go so far as to confiscate my camera on the spot, I’m fairly certain they can be charged with theft.

  13. 14 Anders 31 August 2010 at 12:14

    OK I’m probably mistaken, but shouldn’t it be up to the person who sues for “libel” to prove point (a), that the accusation is false. Otherwise we’re apparently back to the situation with reversed burden of proof.

    In YB’s case, disregarding the fact that we’re talking about an organization and not a person, wouldn’t it be up to the police to prove that his “potentially libelous” statement is false, not up to YB to prove that he’s right (unless he himself wants to make a case against the sg police of course).

    If his statement was not “based on hearsay” and “subjective opinion”, but an actual but unproven personal experience, would that make any difference?

    Just making an extreme example to show my point: Suppose I’m assaulted on the street. I know who the perpetrator is but I have no proof whatsoever. Should I then be scared of accusing the perpetrator, knowing that my lack of proof might turn me into a criminal myself?

  14. 15 TinyRedLeaf 31 August 2010 at 14:10

    As far as I’m aware, the burden of proof does not lie with the claimant of defamation. After all, he is asserting that his reputation has been damaged by an allegedly false statement. He doesn’t even have to prove that his reputation is actually “damaged”.

    That’s why one of the strongest possible defences against a defamation suit is to show that the allegedly offensive statement can be proved. Without proof, such a defence is not possible.

    So, to use your extreme example of assault, technically, yes, you could be sued for defamation if you can’t prove beyond a shadow of doubt the identity of your assailant. In a sense, this is fair — how is it justifiable to accuse someone of assault when you can’t prove his identity? Note, though, the key word here is “could”. I’m not sure if the court has actually allowed such suits in the past.

    • 16 Anders 31 August 2010 at 14:42

      If it is in good faith it should be perfectly fair. How often do you have proof that you right from the start know will hold in a court of law?

      • 17 Anders 1 September 2010 at 02:27

        Sorry, I meant to say _not_ fair. The accusation would be perfectly justifiable if it was done in good faith. Seldom would you be sure right from the start that you can “prove beyond a shadow of doubt the identity of your assailant” and failure to do so can’t possibly be a crime itself. That would be absurd.


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