Search and seizure without a warrant? Here’s what the Films Act amendments will change.

Everything you need to know about the proposed amendments to the Films Act, but were too afraid to ask.

By Sulaiman Daud | March 22, 2018

You might have heard of a proposed new law that will allow IMDA officers to break down doors and enter your homes to search for illegal films. The Bill proposing the law was passed yesterday (21 Mar).

Should you be worried? Should you care? Read on:

Changes incoming

The Films Act is a 1981 law relating to the creation, possession, and exhibition of films.

It includes regulations for censorship and the distribution of political films.

On Dec. 4, 2017, IMDA and the Ministry of Communications and Information (MCI) launched a public consultation on proposed changes to the Films Act.

Here’s how it described the proposed changes:

“MCI and IMDA are conducting a public consultation on the proposed amendments to the Films Act (FA) to bring the Act up-to-date given the changes in the media landscape, to formally establish a co-classification scheme for films up to PG13 rating, and to introduce a class licence for video games retailers. 

The proposals also include clarifications to the regulatory scope of the FA and changes to the processes for appeals against IMDA’s decisions. As IMDA takes on investigations into breaches of the FA, its investigation and enforcement powers will be enhanced accordingly.”

A copy of the Bill was released online to the public.

Open up

According to Clause 13 of the Bill, the old Sections 22, 23 and 24 will be repealed and replaced with new ones.

The new Section 23A of the Act will give IMDA officers the authority to enter and search premises without a warrant, while investigating breaches of the Act.

It also gives IMDA officers the power to “break open any door or window leading to the premises” or “remove by force any obstruction” to search an entry.

Petitions raised

Some members of the local arts community and the public opposed these changes, and raised other objections.

On Dec. 18, filmmaker Jason Soo (1987: Tracing a Conspiracy) started a petition, objecting to the proposed amendment to Section 23 of the Films Act, and to repeal Section 34 of the existing Act. His petition was submitted with 750 signatures collected.

In case you were wondering, Section 34 already empowers any:

  • Deputy or Assistant Commissioner of Police
  • Assistant Superintendent of Police
  • Censor, Deputy or Assistant Censor or Inspector of Films

To enter and search any place and detain anyone suspected of possessing any “obscene” or “political party” film, without a warrant.

Award-winning filmmakers voiced objection

Another group, Film Community SG, also submitted their own petition calling the enhancement to IMDA’s investigative powers “problematic”.

It also opposed the Bill’s proposed change to Section 24 that would give the Minister sole discretion over the outcome of appeals for films that have been refused classification by the IMDA on grounds of national security.

Prominent signatories of this petition include Jack Neo (I Not Stupid), Anthony Chen (Ilo Ilo), Kirsten Tan (Pop Aye), Tan Pin Pin (To Singapore, With Love) and K Rajagopal (A Yellow Bird).

IMDA responds

In its Closing Note issued at the end of the public consultation exercise on Feb. 20, IMDA said:

“Under the current Films Act, IMDA as the licensing and classification authority has powers of entry without warrant and powers of seizure for offences related to obscene films, PPFs and unclassified films.”

However, IMDA clarified that only dedicated and specially trained enforcement officers in IMDA are permitted to carry out such enforcement actions, who are required to attend and pass Home Team Investigation Courses.

Items are also seized only when they are evidence of an offence under the Act, and are needed to establish the offences.

IMDA added that these changes were needed during investigations, as IMDA officers needed to ensure “timely intervention” in view of the ease of flight and removal of evidence of the perpetrators.

Discussed in Parliament

The Films (Amendments) Bill was first tabled in Parliament on Feb. 27, 2018.

Perhaps in response to the concerns raised by the public consultation, the language of the amendments to Section 23A was tweaked a little.

The Bill now specifies and lists down the offences with which IMDA enforcement officers will be allowed to enter and search one’s home without a warrant, as listed down under the new Section 34A.

The Bill was read for a second time on March 21. Minister for Communications and Information Yaacob Ibrahim said that given Singapore’s multi-racial and multi-religious society, these changes were critical.

He added that Singapore was “highly” susceptible to foreign influence and information campaigns and that “highly undesirable” content can be easily disseminated given today’s advances in technology.

You can view Minister Yaacob’s speech here:

Minister Yaacob reiterated the point made by IMDA in its Closing Note, saying that:

“Under the current FA, IMDA as the licensing and classification authority already have powers to enter premises and seize items that constitute evidence, without warrant, for serious offences such as those involving obscene and unclassified films. These powers are vital to the protection of public interest so that IMDA is able to secure the necessary evidence for prosecution.”

However, he elaborated on a number of safeguards that IMDA will implement to ward off abuse, such as confining these powers to “serious offences”, extending them only to prohibited films and unlicensed public exhibition of films.

He added that enforcement powers will only be exercised by IMDA officers trained by the Home Team, and that owners can challenge the seizures of their items in court within 48 hours of the seizure.

Some concerns

MPs Zaqy Mohamad, Darryl David and Louis Ng, as well as NMP Kok Heng Leun raised a number of concerns, asking what constitutes a film that goes against national security, and asked what the appeals process would be like.

In response, Minister Yaacob said that the government did not want to “bind in legislation” what constituted a national security matter, given its complex nature.

However, he stated that IMDA would continue to provide grounds for its decisions if classification is refused. He said:

“Should there be appeals for films with national security concerns, I envisage that we will adopt an appeals process similar to existing ministerial appeals, where the appellant and IMDA would be given due opportunity to make their respective cases to the Minister via written submissions.”

Kok also said that “sweeping and intrusive powers” of search and seizure should only be left to the police, not to IMDA officers.

On this point, Yaacob said that the Bill specified that investigations without warrants would only be used when the enforcement officer has “reasonable grounds” to suspect that serious offences are being committed, and it is necessary to secure evidence from being destroyed.

He reassured the MPs that only items used in the commission of the offences would be seized.

You can watch Minister Yaacob’s clarifications in full below:

Top image from Pixabay.

About Sulaiman Daud

Sulaiman believes that we can be heroes, if just for one day. His favourite Doctor is Peter Capaldi's Twelve. In his spare time he writes about film, pop-culture and international politics, which you are very welcome to read here.

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