Singapore’s attorney general accused the Wall Street Journal on Tuesday of waging a two-decade campaign to besmirch the Singapore judiciary, at the start of a contempt of court case brought against the newspaper.
Singapore’s attorney general is seeking contempt proceedings against the publisher of the Asian edition of the Wall Street Journal, News Corp’s Dow Jones & Co, and two of the newspaper’s editors, Daniel Hertzberg and Christine Glancey.
“Freedom of speech in Singapore allows a person to criticise government policy and the decisions of the courts. There is no fetter on public debate about policy,” said Walter Woon, Singapore’s attorney general, in court.
“When discussion of a court’s judgements becomes an attack on a judge or the judiciary, then the law of contempt of court steps in,” Woon said.
Woon said he was looking for a “substantial fine” to be imposed on Dow Jones, but was not looking to financially cripple the company.
The case is the latest in a string of legal actions brought by the Southeast Asian country against foreign news organisations.
The attorney general’s office has said two editorials published in the Asian Wall Street Journal, entitled “Democracy in Singapore” and “Judging Singapore’s Judiciary,” allege that the judiciary is “not independent” and “is biased and lacks integrity”.
The lawyer representing Dow Jones Publishing Co (Asia) Inc, Philip Jeyaretnam, said the two editorials were opinion pieces, with a smart and informal tone that should not be read as sarcastic or disrespectful.
“Newspapers don’t conduct 25-year campaigns, and the Wall Street Journal is certainly not part of any campaign,” said Jeyaretnam, in his opening remarks to the court.
Jeyaretnam, a former president of Singapore’s Law Society and the son of the late Singapore opposition leader J.B. Jeyaretnam, said the defense of fair criticism should apply and the publication had shown no malice.
“The readership of the Wall Street Journal Asia is a discerning one … It expects to hear different sides of any debate and to make up its own mind,” he said.
Singapore leaders have won damages in the past from foreign media groups when they report on local politics, including the Economist, the International Herald Tribune and Bloomberg News.
Wall Street Journal raised doubts about Singapore judiciary: govt
The Wall Street Journal Asia has raised doubts about the integrity of Singapore’s judiciary and should be held in contempt, the country’s attorney-general told the High Court on Tuesday.
On the opening day of proceedings against the newspaper and two of its editors, Attorney-General Walter Woon said three articles it published in June and July this year had undermined the city-state’s judiciary.
The articles were two editorials and a letter by Singapore pro-democracy activist Chee Soon Juan, which the attorney-general’s office said alleged the judiciary was not independent, was biased and lacked integrity.
“This case is not about the freedom of speech per se,” Woon said in his submissions to Justice Tay Yong Kwang.
“It is about the rule of law and the vital role that the courts and judiciary play in its maintenance.”
Singapore does not stop anybody from criticising its laws but a line must be drawn when the criticisms become an attack on the integrity of the judge and the court, said Woon.
“We do not say you cannot criticise the laws… but you leave the judiciary out of it. (Our) judges are not political creatures… the fact that they apply Singapore laws does not make them biased,” he said.
Facing contempt charges are the newspaper’s publisher Dow Jones Publishing Company (Asia), Inc, international editor Daniel Hertzberg and managing editor Christine Glancey.
Senior Counsel Philip Jeyaretnam, representing the Wall Street Journal Asia‘s publisher Dow Jones Publishing and the two editors concerned, argued that his clients had not undermined the court.
“It is necessary for your honour to consider whether there is one sole word that is in contempt of the court,” he said.
After proceedings were adjourned for the day, Dow Jones released a statement defending its publication of the articles.
“Today in court we defended our right to report and comment on matters of international interest, including matters concerning Singapore,” said the statement.
“We also argued that in this instance, what we published simply does not constitute contempt of court.”
International human rights groups have accused Singapore leaders of using the courts to stifle dissent; they, in turn, argue this is necessary to protect their reputation from unfounded attacks.
Singapore’s leaders have won hundreds of thousands of dollars in damages from defamation suits filed against critics and foreign publications.
Most recently, the Far Eastern Economic Review, was found by a High Court judge to have defamed the country’s founding father Lee Kuan Yew and his son, Prime Minister Lee Hsien Loong.
The Far Eastern Economic Review is a sister publication of the Wall Street Journal Asia.