Lawsuit worry cows foreign media in S’pore: Opposition

November 26, 2005
Singapore Democrats

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Stephen Wright
Dow Jones Newswires
26 Nov 05

Foreign media have been cowed by fear of lawsuits from Singapore’s leadership and censor their reports on the city-state, helping to prop up a regime that restricts freedom of speech and assembly, an opposition leader said Friday.

Chee Soon Juan, leader of the Singapore Democrat Party and longtime critic of the city-state’s ruling People’s Action Party, said Singapore-based foreign media are engaging in “self censorship” by shying away from sensitive issues.

In the past few years, some foreign news organizations have paid large fines in legal settlements or had their circulation restricted in Singapore. Affected publications or organizations include the Economist, Bloomberg LP, The Asian Wall Street Journal and The Far Eastern Economic Review.

The Wall Street Journal and its regional editions and The Far Eastern Economic Review, along with this and other newswires, are published by Dow Jones & Company (DJ).

Singapore says foreign media are welcome in Singapore but must respect local sensitivities and not interfere in local politics.

Last week, Singapore Prime Minister Lee Hsien Loong said on the sidelines of the Asia-Pacific Economic Cooperation forum in Busan, South Korea, that hundreds of magazines are available in Singapore, the Internet is easily available and many international media organizations have offices there.

“If you’re reporting the facts, you have nothing to fear,” Lee said, according to the Associated Press. “All we ask is the right to put our position on the record.”

The city-state was recently ranked near the bottom of an international press freedom index compiled by Reporters Without Borders, behind countries such as Sudan and Ethiopia.

Fair and balanced reporting on Singapore is being “slowly choked,” with news outlets afraid of financial penalties, such as restrictions on circulation, if they offend the government, Chee said.

The international media companies, many of which have regional headquarters in Singapore, should “rethink” whether they want to operate here,  Chee said.

Singapore’s world-class infrastructure and reputation for stability need to be balanced against the fact that its government is a “regime that brooks no dissent,” he said.

Singapore, one of the wealthiest nations in Asia, prides itself on being an oasis of stability and efficiency in a crisis-prone region, but the current government, in power for over four decades, maintains strict control over its citizens.

Local media toe the government line. Public protests of five or more people require a permit, and some high-profile dissenters have been sued for defamation and bankrupted.

Chee himself faces bankruptcy after a court awarded modern Singapore’s founding father, Lee Kuan Yew, and former Prime Minister Goh Chok Tong some S$500,000 in defamation damages for comments Chee made during the 2001 election campaign.

Chee, a former lecturer in neuropsychology, was sacked from his teaching job at the National University of Singapore in 1993 after he joined the opposition.

He contested his dismissal, which was made on grounds of dishonest behavior, and was sued by university officials for defamation, paying out S$300,000.

Singapore cannot become a fully fledged democracy until it has freedom of speech, assembly and the media, Chee said.

While freedom of assembly and speech could be achieved domestically by defying bans on public protests and gatherings, freedom of the media will never be achieved without pressure from the international community, he said.

Prime Minister Lee’s “rhetoric” that Singapore is becoming a more open society doesn’t live up to the reality, Chee said.

He pointed to the recent arrest of four people engaged in a peaceful protest for more transparency from government organizations, and the ongoing police investigation into Martyn See, the maker of Singapore Rebel, a documentary about Chee.