Amnesty: Singapore defamation ruling attacks press

November 19, 2009
Singapore Democrats

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The Associated Press

Human rights group Amnesty International urged Singapore on Thursday to protect freedom of expression after an Asian magazine paid 405,000 Singapore dollars ($290,000) to settle a defamation suit by the country’s prime minister and his father.

Far Eastern Economic Review
reached the settlement Tuesday after the Court of Appeal upheld a 2008 decision finding the defendants guilty of defaming Prime Minister Lee Hsien Loong and his father, former Prime Minister Lee Kuan Yew.

The Review’s editor, Hugo Restal, and the Review Publishing Co. Ltd. were alleged to have defamed the Lees in a 2006 article based on an interview with Chee Soon Juan, an opposition party leader. The magazine is owned by the U.S.-based Dow Jones & Co.

“This ruling further illustrates how press freedom is under threat in Singapore and sets a dangerous precedent for freedom of expression and journalism in the region,” Sam Zarifi of Amnesty International said in a statement.

He said Singapore’s Parliament should enact legislation to allow the media to act as a watchdog and bring laws on freedom of expression in line with international law and standards.

“Laws that allow the authorities to impose restrictions on freedom of expression together with a pattern of politically motivated defamation suits, have created a climate of political intimidation and self-censorship in Singapore,” he said.

Critics, including opposition leaders, contend that Singapore applies defamation laws selectively to silence criticism. The government says restrictions on speech and assembly are necessary to preserve the economic prosperity and racial stability of the multiethnic city-state of 4.8 million people. It says any slight on its leaders will hinder their ability to rule effectively.

The elder Lee founded the People’s Action Party, which has ruled Singapore since 1959 and has 82 of Parliament’s 84 members. He was prime minister from 1959 to 1990, and today has an advisory role in the government with the title of mentor minister.

The Review said in a statement while it did not agree with the verdict, it settled to avoid prolonging the case.

Dow Jones does not believe it defamed the Lees and this decision will not “deter us from (providing) fair and timely reporting and commentary on matters of importance from around the world, including in Singapore,” said the statement.

The article that got Review into trouble, “Singapore’s Martyr, Chee Soon Juan,” featured an interview with Chee and criticized a scandal at the National Kidney Foundation charity.

Chee was forced into bankruptcy in 2006 by a $300,000 ruling against him for defaming the elder Lee and former Prime Minister Goh Chok Tong.

The city-state’s leaders have sued journalists and political opponents several times in past years for alleged defamation. They have won lawsuits and damages against Bloomberg, the Economist and the International Herald Tribune.