CPJ statement: Blogger shut down by legal threat

Committee to Protect Journalists
5 May 2005

The threat of legal action has prompted Singaporean blogger Jiahao Chen to shut down his site and post an apology for comments criticizing a government agency and its chairman. The Committee to Protect Journalists said today it is alarmed that the threat of defamation lawsuits is being used to inhibit criticism of the government in cyberspace, much as it has in Singapores traditional media.

A*Star (Agency for Science, Technology and Research) acknowledged that it threatened to lodge a defamation suit against Chen, Channel NewsAsia reported yesterday. Chen, who is currently pursuing graduate studies in the United States, was formerly a scholarship student through the agency. Under the pseudonym Acid Flask, he posted comments on his Web log criticizing the agencys policies, according to other Internet news sources.

On April 26, Chen shut down his site and posted a statement that the price of maintaining the content has become too high for the author to afford. He apologized to A*Star and to its chairman, Philip Yeo, for having hosted or made remarks which Mr. Yeo felt were defamatory to him and the agency that he leads and promised not to mention the chairman or the agency by name on the Web site.

Government agencies and officials in Singapore have often lodged civil and criminal defamation complaints which can bring large fines and jail time against traditional media outlets that criticize them by name. The London-based Economist magazine paid US$230,000 in damages to Prime Minister Lee Hsien Loong and his father last year after noting the appointment of the prime ministers wife as chief of a government investment company.

Bloggers who criticize Singapores political or social policy often do so anonymously. Following the threat of legal action against Chen, lawyer Gilbert Koh shut down his Web log. Koh wrote that he had not received any threat of legal action, but that he could not risk a defamation suit by writing under his real name. In his last posting, he offered tips to other bloggers to avoid defamation complaints by remaining anonymous, refraining from naming officials or agencies in their criticism, and removing remarks posted by others that might be construed as defamatory.

Defamation suits are used as a club by the government of Singapore to silence critical thinking and reporting in the media, CPJ Executive Director Ann Cooper said. We are troubled that the government has raised the specter of costly legal action to chill commentary on the Internet.
CPJ is a New York-based, independent, nonprofit organization that works to safeguard press freedom worldwide. For more information about press conditions in Singapore, visit http://www.cpj.org.

Committee to Protect Journalists
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AcidFlask’s Story
4 May 2005

First off, please note that my pseudonym was “AcidFlask” not “Acid Flask”, and that the title of my blog was “caustic.soda”.

I am a first-year graduate student in the chemical physics PhD program at the University of Illinois at Urbana-Champaign, USA. Until last week, I had a personal blog on my university account, which as far as I understand is not a violation of school policy.

On April 22 (Friday), I received the first email from Mr. Philip Yeo, chairman of A*STAR, dated 5:44 am GMT-5 which notified me that he had earmarked a post on my blog (#442) for legal action. Over the next three days he sent me a total of eleven emails which were of a threatening and insulting nature, demanding that I remove “all” the posts on my blog or face legal action for defaming A*STAR and himself.

Despite writing to him three times seeking clarification by email, he had refused to elaborate on which specific remarks he had found offensive and reiterated his demand to remove “everything” on my blog.

Since my end of semester examinations begin this Friday (May 6), I am sure you can appreciate how I was certainly not in the mood to sift through the 400-odd posts that I had written on my blog and edit or remove anything that was potentially defamatory. Therefore the only choice I had to stem the barrage of emails was to take the whole thing off-line. It was only when I wrote to him, informing him of my taking the blog down that he sent me a final (and twelfth) email last Tuesday, saying that his lawyer would follow up with amendments to my apology posted online. To date I have yet to hear from them so I assume the matter is closed.

I cannot reveal the exact details of the communication as Mr. Yeo had also threatened further litigation regarding the disclosure of some of the contents of the exchange.

As for legal aspects, I have been told that this is a thorny issue as it is not clear whether US law or Singapore law applies. The university is supportive of my right have a blog on my university account, but I can afford neither the time nor the money to fight it out in the courts in order to find out how the legal intricacies come together for my case. After all, I am not here in the US neither to experience its wonderful judicial system nor to take extended leave from it in order to fight a legal battle back home.

I would like to emphasize that I still do not know exactly what I had written that he had found offensive, and that Mr. Yeo had demanded that I remove all posts which mentioned either him or A*STAR, whether directly or indirectly, and cease “running [him] down” on my blog. It was impossible to satisfy such vague demands except by taking the entire blog down altogether.

Out of over 400 posts on my blog, perhaps ten or so mentioned Mr. Yeo or A*STAR by name. All of these posts were opinionated commentary (based on fact!) on policies made by A*STAR. One of my comments was on A*STAR’s scholarship system. A*STAR gives out scholarships to prospective undergraduates to study technical majors both in Singapore and in reputable institutions abroad. Last year A*STAR instituted a new
policy requiring their scholars to maintain a 3.8 grade point average (between A- and A average). Having been a scholar at one point in time, I felt that this was unnecessarily draconian and even counterproductive, as this would unduly influence students to pick easy classes over more challenging (and hence more enriching) classes, and said so on my blog.

In his previous position as chairman of the Economic Development Board (EDB), Mr. Yeo had also adopted the same strict stance toward such bond-breakers, labeling them as immoral. I can only speculate as to how his ire could be possibly connected to my decision to break my bond (albeit on a scholarship from a different government agency) and a story in The New Paper in early April about my decision to do so.

It may also interest you that this was the first time that Mr. Yeo had ever contacted me, and that I had never denied him the right of reply to the conclusions that I had drawn based on publicly available facts. Also, in its 274 days of existence, my blog had seen a grand total of 44,291 visitors, i.e. 162 visitors/day.

I spoke out because as a taxpayer and citizen, I cared enough about the policies at hand to make reasoned opinions about them, and in particular to point out what I considered to be possibly counterproductive side effects. I considered remarks made by persons such as Dr. Vivian Balakrishnan and MM Lee Kuan Yew earlier this year, urging young Singaporeans to speak out, as encouragement to do so. As a young Singaporean who tried to speak out and received such an intimidating response, I am disappointed and discouraged that Mr. Yeo had not attempted to correct any possible misconceptions that I may have had over the interpretation of publicly available information, deciding instead to threaten to sue me for defamation. I cannot say that such actions have promoted the cause of getting young Singaporeans to speak out.

I have delayed considerations of further blogging until the end of my examinations in mid-May.

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