Blogger apologises after libel threat

Geert De Clercq
9 May 2005

A Singapore student said on Monday he has shut down his blog and apologised unreservedly after a government agency threatened to sue for defamation. Chen Jiahao, a 23-year-old graduate student in the United States, told Reuters he closed down his personal Web site after A*STAR, a Singapore government agency focusing on science and research, threatened legal action for what the agency said were untrue and serious accusations.

International freedom of speech and media advocates criticised the agency’s methods.

Chen said he had removed all material from his site and posted an apology on April 26 after receiving e-mails from the agency’s chief. He added that the agency told him last week his apology was insincere and that they wanted a new apology.

On Sunday he posted the new apology on his “Caustic Soda” blog, saying “I unreservedly apologise to A*STAR, its Chairman Mr. Philip Yeo, and its executive officers for the distress and embarrassment caused to them.”

“They sent me an e-mail with these words,” Chen told Reuters on Monday by telephone from the United States, where he studies chemical physics at the University of Illinois at Urbana-Champaign.

An A*STAR spokeswoman said she could not immediately comment on the new apology. The agency told Singapore media on Friday it wanted the student to apologise unreservedly by May 8.

Paris-based Reporters without Borders said the case highlighted the lack of free expression in Singapore, which is among the 20 lowest-scoring countries in the organisation’s worldwide press freedom index.

“Chen criticised some of A*Star’s policies but there was nothing defamatory in what he wrote,” Julien Pain, head of Reporters without Borders’ Internet freedom desk, told Reuters.

A*STAR said in a statement last week that it recognised the value of a diversity of views and welcomed that in all media. “But the particular public blog had statements which went way beyond fair comment.” It did not elaborate.

Bloggers are generally not journalists, but some of the thousands of private online blogs — short for Web logs — on the Internet have gained political relevance. The campaign for the May 5 election in Britain saw an explosion of blogs, much like in last year’s U.S. presidential election.

The U.S.-based Committee to Protect Journalists said last week it was alarmed that the threat of defamation lawsuits was being used to inhibit criticism of the government in cyberspace, much as it has in Singapore’s traditional media.

“We are troubled that the government has raised the spectre of costly legal action to chill commentary on the Internet,” Executive Director Ann Cooper was quoted on a CPJ Web site as saying.

Singapore-based politicians as well as international media organisations have paid large amounts of damages in libel cases brought by senior government figures.

Singapore leaders have defended their use of defamation lawsuits, saying that such actions are necessary to safeguard their reputation.

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