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The island republic’s attorney general files contempt charges against the Wall Street Journal Asia for unfavorable editorials
In January of 1984, JB Jeyaretnam, Singapore’s then-lone opposition member of parliament, and mortal enemy of then-Prime Minister Lee Kuan Yew, was acquitted by Senior District Judge Michael Khoo in a Singapore court of making a false declaration about the accounts of his Workers’ Party.
Shortly after that, Senior District Judge Khoo lost his job and was unceremoniously moved to the attorney-general’s chambers, widely considered to be a much lower posting. The Jeyaretnam episode is the last time on record that a high-profile case ever went against any members of Singapore’s ruling Lee family or the government.
Given this unbroken record of legal victories, the Singapore government looks set to attempt to improve on it, filing contempt of court charges against the Wall Street Journal Asia for three articles published in June and July that “impugn the impartiality, integrity and independence of the Singapore judiciary,” according to the complaint. “These allegations and insinuations are unwarranted.”
One of the editorials concerned a 72-page report by the International Bar Association that has become an embarrassment both to the government and the Lee family. In a court case against the embattled opposition leader Chee Soon Juan, Lee Kuan Yew testified under oath that the Singapore Law Society had received a laudatory letter from the association, praising Singapore’s judicial system. Instead, the 72-page report, titled “Prosperity versus individual rights? Human rights, democracy and the rule of law in Singapore,” makes 18 recommendations which the association urges the Singapore government to implement as a matter of priority.
Singapore’s government, the report continues, “is currently failing to meet established international standards in these areas.” Reports of opposition candidates being targeted for criticizing the government, it says, “are of significant concern and threaten democracy and the rule of law in Singapore.” It describes an “apparent climate of fear and self-censorship surrounding the press in Singapore,” and that the “increasing tendency for high profile and respected publications to pay large out-of-court settlements to avoid litigation with PAP officials and the continued run of success within in-court claims is worrying.”
The Journal’s editorial called the report a ‘good primer’ on Singapore’s use of defamation suits against opposition politicians and the foreign press.
Christine Glancey, the managing editor of the newspaper, now owned by Rupert Murdoch’s News Corp., said she would have no comment and referred all questions to Robert Christie, Dow Jones corporate spokesman in New York. The contempt charges, and another case hanging fire in Singapore against the Far Eastern Economic Review, another Dow Jones publication, are rapidly becoming a test of News Corp’s nerve. It is the first time News Corp, which in the past has shown little stomach for taking on governments, has come up against the immovable object that is the Singapore regime, as other publishers have, usually to their sorrow.
The decision to file contempt charges comes a few days after another Singapore judge, Justice Woo Bih Li encouraged lawyers for the Prime Minister Lee Hsien Loong and his father, Minister Mentor Lee Kuan Yew, to amend their defamation petition against the Far Eastern Economic Review to make sure they included Woo’s own more defamatory reading of an article about the two ministers. Woo’s ruling, two years after the filing of the original charges, appeared to be unprecedented.
Singapore and the Lee family have long been famous for suing journalists, both foreign and domestic – and they have never lost a suit in Singapore. The Far Eastern Economic Review was a favorite target. The media watchdog organization Reporters Without Borders ranks Singapore 140th out of 167 countries surveyed in terms of freedom of the press. The country has been kicking foreign journalists out for writing critical articles about the republic since the early 1970s.
An official enquiry requested by Jeyaretnam into allegations of executive interference in judiciary appointments in the wake of Khoo’s demotion found that there was no truth to the claims. In fact, Justice T S Sinnathuray, the sole commissioner who examined the case, said: “The wholly unfounded allegations of Mr Jeyaretnam (of executive interference) were scandalous statements that should never have been made.”