IFEX reports US ambassador’s remarks

October 21, 2005
Singapore Democrats

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The influential International Freedom of Expression Exchange (IFEX; http://www.ifex.org) reported US Ambassador Frank Lavin’s comments about the continued suppression of free speech in Singapore.

http://www.ifex.org/en/content/search?SectionID=4&SearchText=singapore&SubTreeArray=-1&x=7&y=14

The Singaporean government came under criticism by a departing U.S. ambassador last week, who questioned whether it made sense to limit political expression in an Internet-dominated era, reported the Southeast Asian Press Alliance (SEAPA).

At his farewell dinner on 11 October 2005, Franklin Lavin said it was “surprising to find constraints on discussions” and questioned the need for restricting freedom of expression in the city-state.

“What are the bounds of expression? What say should citizens have in their government? In this era of weblogs and webcams, how much sense does it make to limit political expression? In my view, governments will pay an increasing price for not allowing full participation of their citizens.”

Despite its robust economic development, Singapore is one of the most repressive regimes in Southeast Asia when it comes to freedom of expression, says SEAPA. The state controls all mainstream print and broadcast media, and its Films Act bans any work that is deemed to be political in any way.

Singaporean authorities also keep a close watch on the Internet, where a handful of independent websites and blogs have been trying to provide alternative news and commentary for Singaporeans.

The story of the banned film “Singapore Rebel” is a classic example of how free speech is muzzled in Singapore. Filmmaker Martyn See has been harassed by authorities and forced to hand over his video camera and tapes of a documentary about Chee Soon Juan, the secretary general of the Singapore Democratic Party.

“Singapore Rebel” focuses on the life of Chee, who faces bankruptcy after being sued by the government for defamation because of speeches he made while running in the 2001 parliamentary elections. Chee was accused of defaming Singapore’s founder, Lee Kuan Yew, and former leader Goh Chok Tong, and fined 500,000 Singapore Dollars (US$295,000).

In March, “Singapore Rebel” was pulled from a local film festival after censors warned that it was too “political.” The country’s Films Act bars the production and distribution of “party political” films – defined as films “made by any person and directed towards any political end in Singapore.”

The government often uses strict defamation laws to silence criticism or discussion of politically sensitive issues, says the Committee to Protect Journalists (CPJ). In May, graduate student Jiahao Chen closed his blog after a government agency threatened legal action for comments he posted in which he criticised the agency’s policies (see: http://www.ifex.org/en/content/view/full/66462/).

In September 2004, “Economist” magazine paid US$230,000 in damages to President Lee Hsien Loong and his father, Lee Kuan Yew, and apologized “unreservedly” for an August article that noted “a whiff of nepotism” in the appointment of Lee’s wife, Ho Ching, as chief executive of a government investment company. The elder Lee has won libel actions in the past against “The International Herald Tribune”, “Far Eastern Economic Review” and the Bloomberg business news wire. Each paid hundreds of thousands of dollars in damages or out-of-court settlements.

While Singaporeans enjoy easy access to information through the Internet, the government discourages criticism online by requiring “political” websites to register for a licence and using the threat of defamation lawsuits to silence dissent, according to a recent study by the OpenNet Initiative.

Visit these links:
– SEAPA: http://www.seapabkk.org/newdesign/newsdetail.php?No=403
– U.S. Ambassador Lavin’s Farewell Speech: http://singapore.usembassy.gov/speeches/2005/Oct11.shtml
– CPJ: http://www.cpj.org/attacks04/asia04/singapore.html
– OpenNet Initiative Study of Internet Filtering in Singapore:
http://www.opennetinitiative.net/studies/singapore/
– Freedom House Report on Singapore:
http://www.freedomhouse.org/research/freeworld/2004/countryratings/singapore.htm
– Martyn See’s Blog: http://singaporerebel.blogspot.com/
– Singabloodypore: http://singabloodypore.blogspot.com/
– Wikipedia Profile of Chee Soon Juan: http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Chee_Soon_Juan