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Koh Gui Qing & Neil Chatterjee
Singapore’s High Court has ruled that the Far Eastern Economic Review (FEER) has defamed the city-state’s two most powerful leaders, a court document showed on Wednesday.
The publisher and editor of the magazine, owned by Dow Jones & Co, are to pay damages to Prime Minister Lee Hsien Loong and his father and former prime minister Lee Kuan Yew, after defaming them in an article published in 2006.
Dow Jones & Co is owned by Rupert Murdoch’s News Corp.
The damages for the lawsuit, the latest in a string of legal action Singapore’s political leaders have taken against foreign media, will be decided at a later date, the court judgment said.
The Lees sued the magazine and its editor Hugo Restall last year over an article on Chee Soon Juan, a prominent Singapore opposition politician.
The August 2006 story, entitled Singapore’s Martyr: Chee Soon Juan, criticised the government’s handling of a pay-and-perks scandal at the country’s largest charity, the National Kidney Foundation (NKF). The charity’s former head T.T. Durai has since been jailed.
“We are disappointed with the decision,” Restall told Reuters, adding the magazine is considering an appeal.
“It is notable that the court has determined that the public interest privilege that is available in the United Kingdom and other Commonwealth countries, is not applicable in Singapore,” he said.
The magazine had cited fair comment in its defence, saying the article was of public interest, and that the media had a duty to publish it because the public had a right to know.
But the judge said in the judgment that if such a defence holds, “a person could continue to make defamatory remarks about a person who enjoys the highest of reputations without being liable” in Singapore.
Dow Jones is also facing contempt proceedings brought against it by Singapore’s attorney general for printing editorials that “impugn the impartiality, integrity and independence of the Singapore judiciary” in the Asian edition of its Wall Street Journal.
Singapore leaders have sued and won damages in the past from foreign media groups including the Economist, International Herald Tribune and Bloomberg. They say the lawsuits are necessary to protect their reputations, but critics say they are used to crush opposition.
Editor ‘defamed’ Singapore leader
Singapore’s High Court has ruled that the Far Eastern Economic Review (FEER) magazine defamed Singapore’s rulers.
It ruled that the editor, Hugo Restall, also “defamed” Singapore’s founding father Lee Kuan Yew and his son, current Prime Minister Lee Hsein Loong.
The case was about an article in FEER in 2006, based on an interview with Singapore politician Chee Soon Juan.
The Singapore government has frequently resorted to its own courts to protect its reputation.
Singapore state media reported that Justice Woo Bih Li had reached his conclusion of defamation by summary judgement, as requested by the Lees.
In such a judgement, the court makes a ruling without the case going to trial, as it agrees with the applicant that the defence arguments are baseless, the Straits Times newspaper added.
Damages are to be assessed later. FEER has a month in which to lodge an appeal.
The Straits Times reported that lawyers for the Lees had said the article at the centre of the case was “calculated to disparage both leaders by suggesting they were corrupt and unfit for office, and would sue and suppress those who questioned them as the questions would expose their corruption”.
The article which had aroused the Lees’ anger was entitled Singapore’s ‘Martyr,’ Chee Soon Juan. It described the Singapore Democratic Party secretary general’s battle against the ruling People’s Action Party and its leaders.
FEER had argued that the article was based on facts and fair comment, concerned matters of public interest and was a neutral report.
But Justice Woo said FEER’s defences failed or did not apply in Singapore, the Straits Times said.
He said there was no doubt the defamatory words in the article referred to the two Singapore leaders, and that other references that linked the government to Singapore’s National Kidney Foundation and its disgraced director T.T. Durai amounted to “defamation by implication”.
Justice Woo found the article to mean that Lee Kuan Yew “has been running and continues to run Singapore in the same corrupt manner as Durai operated NKF and he has been using libel actions to suppress those who would question to avoid exposure of his corruption”, the newspaper reported.
He also found the article to mean that Prime Minister Lee “too is unfit for office because he is corrupt and he too has set out to sue and suppress those who question him to cover up his corruption”.
Justice Woo rejected FEER’s argument that the article constituted fair comment, saying the words in question were allegations of facts and not comments.
FEER’s argument that Dr Chee was entitled to respond to allegations made against him by the Lees, was also rejected, as Justice Woo found the defamatory words went beyond such a response.
The allegation of corruption against the Lees was “plainly an example of someone going beyond defence and proceeding to offence”, he was reported to have said by the Straits Times.
Singaporean leaders have won hundreds of thousands of dollars in damages in defamation cases against critics and foreign publications, which they have said are necessary to protect their reputations from unfounded attacks.
Singapore has also banned several foreign publications from distributing their product in Singapore, and have required those that do distribute there to promise to abide by stringent media rules.