Lee Kuan Yew will zing The Far Eastern Economic Review one last time before it goes out of business
Dow Jones Corporation, the owner of the soon-to- be-defunct Far Eastern Economic Review, will pay US$175,000 in damages and costs rather than wait for a hearing over damages* on a ruling that the magazine defamed Prime Minister Lee Hsien Loong and his father, former Prime Minister Lee Kuan Yew, in a 2006 interview with Chee Soon Juan, the secretary-general of the opposition Singapore Democratic Party.
In a judgment handed down Tuesday by Singapore’s Court of Appeal, the defendants – Review Publishing co. and Hugo Restall, the editor – were ordered to pay US$150,000 to the Lees and US$25,000 to their lawyers by Nov. 20 or face paying US$230,000 in total if they appeal the case, which they would almost certainly lose. No publication has ever won a lawsuit against the Lees in their own courts.
The 63-year-old magazine, once the most influential regional publication in Asia, will be shut in December, according to a September 21 statement by Dow Jones.
In addition to suing the FEER and Restall for the story, a long interview in which Chee said Singapore would never change until the elder Lee was dead, the government also later banned the Review, which at that time had more than 1,000 subscribers in Singapore, because the magazine hadn’t appointed a legal representative or paid a $126,150 security bond — new requirements that at the time were unrelated to the lawsuit, but that the Review called unjustified.
In agreeing to the settlement rather than continue to fight the case, Dow Jones issued the following statement:
“Dow Jones strongly disagrees with the decision of the Singapore Court of Appeal upholding the ruling against the Far Eastern Economic Review in the defamation case brought by Lee Hsien Loong and Lee Kuan Yew. The Court casts significant doubt as to whether Singapore will ever recognize the fair and honest reporting privilege accorded to responsible journalism — a privilege available in the United Kingdom and other Commonwealth countries with diverse histories and cultures.
“The Court ruled that even if the privilege were to apply in Singapore, it does not apply to the foreign press – based on the misguided notion that non-Singaporeans have no vested interest in Singapore society. Having waged this battle for press freedom to Singapore’s highest court, we are now resolving this case rather than engaging in a protracted damages process. But make no mistake, Dow Jones does not believe it defamed Lee Hsien Loong or Lee Kuan Yew, and this decision will not deter us from our core mission, which is to provide fair and timely reporting and commentary on matters of importance from around the world, including in Singapore.”
Dow Jones, now owned by media mogul Rupert Mogul’s News Corp, got off relatively lightly. In past years, The Economist was ordered to pay US227,000 in one case and US$125,000 in another. Bloomberg was ordered to pay the Lees US$550,000 in 2002. Apparently the biggest damages were paid by the International Herald Tribune which had to put up US$678,000 when libel charges were brought against the IHT’s columnist, Philip Bowring, who is also a founder of Asia Sentinel. In several other cases, the damage settlements were not revealed.
Some of the biggest battles with Singapore were staged by the Far Eastern Economic Review, which at one point in the 1980s was banned from circulation in the island republic. Instead, the government ordered copies of the Review printed on government presses and sold without advertising to steal the magazine’s content but deny it any revenue from advertising.
In announcing the closure of the Review, Dow Jones said “continued losses in advertising revenue and readers are now unsustainable.” Killing off FEER, the company said, would allow “opinion and commentary resources from Asia” to expand across all Dow Jones properties. Restall, the company said, would keep his job on the editorial board of the Wall Street Journal and the staff would be offered jobs elsewhere in the company.
*Clarification: We originally said Dow Jones would pay rather than appeal further. The only appeal available would be on the size of the damages.