CPJ denounces FEER lawsuit by Lees

September 15, 2006
Singapore Democrats

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Committee to Protect Journalists
15 Sep 06

New York, September 14, 2006 — The Committee to Protect Journalists denounces the defamation suit brought by the Singapore leadership against the publisher and editor of the Far Eastern Economic Review over an article about an opposition politician in the tightly controlled city-state.

Prime Minister Lee Hsien Loong and his father, former premier turned Minister Mentor, Lee Kuan Yew, filed the suit August 22 against the Hong Kong-based Review Publishing Company Ltd. and Far Eastern Economic Review (FEER) editor Hugo Restall.

Parent company Dow Jones & Co. Inc. said the lawsuit centers on a July piece about Chee Soon Juan, an opposition politician in Singapore. FEER’s publishing company and Restall have until September 25 to appear at Singapore’s High Court.

Singapore’s political leadership, which bristles at any criticism, has resorted to the courts on numerous occasions to silence political opponents, often bankrupting them through damages and legal fees.

“Singapore’s senior leaders are once again using the civil courts to silence the media and stifle criticism,” said Joel Simon, CPJ’s executive director. “This legal fig leaf fools no one. The Prime Minister should drop this suit immediately.”

Singapore’s leaders have a history of resorting to the country’s court system to stifle criticism using both criminal and civil law.

In 2001 Chee, secretary-general of the Singapore Democratic Party (SDP) and a strong critic of the government was found guilty of defaming Lee Kuan Yew and then-premier Goh Chok Tong. Chee eventually declared bankruptcy. On Tuesday, Chee and his sister, Chee Siok Chin, were found guilty of defaming the Lees in a separate case.

In May, the two Lees brought criminal defamation charges against politicians responsible for the production of an opposition-run newspaper, The New Democrat, an officially licensed political news publication since the mid-1990s. The case stemmed from an un-bylined story that ran in the latest edition of The New Democrat, which questioned the People’s Action Party-led government’s handling of a recent corruption scandal at the National Kidney Foundation. The story broadly criticizes the government for creating a “secretive and non-accountable system” and contends that higher-level officials should be held accountable. See http://www.cpj.org/news/2006/asia/sing05may06na.html

Lee Kuan Yew has been a long-term adversary of media freedom, and his government has maintained that approach. Of his 1971 role at the International Press Institute’s annual assembly in Helsinki Lee later wrote that, given that editors and journalists were not elected, “Freedom of the press, freedom of the news media, must be subordinated to the overriding needs of Singapore, and to the primacy of purpose of an elected government.”

Singapore PM and his father file suits against magazine
Agence France-Presse

15 Sep 06

Singapore Prime Minister Lee Hsien Loong and his father Lee Kuan Yew have filed defamation suits against the Far Eastern Economic Review, court officials and the magazine’s editor said.

The Lees filed the lawsuits in August against editor Hugo Restall and Hong Kong-based Review Publishing, alleging they were defamed in a July article based on an interview with opposition politician Chee Soon Juan.

They are claiming aggravated damages, which are awarded by the courts in cases where the complainants are deemed severely wronged.

Damages are set in Singapore’s non-jury system by the judge at the end of the trial.

In similar defamation cases, Singapore leaders have won hundreds of thousands of dollars in compensation from political opponents and publications.

The article entitled “Singapore’s ‘Martyr,’ Chee Soon Juan,” describes the Singapore Democratic Party secretary-general’s battle against the ruling People’s Action Party and its leaders.

In the article, Restall also touched on Singapore officials’ success in libel suits against critics.

Restall confirmed to AFP via email that the Lees had filed the lawsuits but declined to comment.

The Lees claimed in the writ seen by AFP Thursday that the article “contained sensational remarks and/or allegations” against them.

“The plaintiff has been gravely injured in his character and reputation, and has been brought into public scandal, odium and contempt,” the two separate writs filed by the Lees said.

The FEER magazine has had skirmishes with Singapore’s ruling party since 1987 when it was gazetted as a foreign newspaper, thereby restricting its circulation, after the government deemed an article as interfering in domestic politics.

Lee Kuan Yew, who turns 83 on Saturday, served as prime minister for three decades before stepping down in 1990 in favour of his deputy Goh Chok Tong, who in turn gave way in 2004 to Prime Minister Lee, now 54.

Singapore leaders have a history of laying defamation suits against critics and foreign publications, which they say is necessary to protect their reputations from unfounded attacks.

International rights groups, however, argue the use of lawsuits is intended to suppress freedom of expression and silence the city-state’s feeble opposition parties.

In January, British news magazine The Economist apologised and paid an unspecified amount in damages to the elder Lee for allegations in an obituary on former president Devan Nair.

Website FinanceAsia.com and US-based news agency Bloomberg have also apologised to the Lee family over articles related to state-linked investment firm Temasek Holdings, which is run by the prime minister’s wife Ho Ching.

They also paid damages for the articles.

Paris-based Reporters Without Borders (RSF) last year ranked Singapore 140th out of 167 countries in its annual press freedom index, alongside the likes of Egypt and Syria.