Singapore: Politicians file defamation charges over critical commentary

New York, May 5, 2006—The Committee to Protect Journalists is deeply concerned about criminal defamation charges recently filed by Singapore Minister Mentor Lee Kuan Yew and Prime Minister Lee Hsein Loong against politicians responsible for the production of an opposition-run newspaper, The New Democrat.

The Lees’ lawyer also threatened to file defamation charges against Melodies Press Co., which prints the paper. The New Democrat, an officially licensed political news publication since the mid-1990s, is managed and produced once or twice a year by a 12-person executive committee consisting of opposition Singapore Democrat Party members.

The Lees filed the charges last week against the newspaper’s entire executive committee. The case stems 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.

The aggravated defamation charges come in the middle of an unusually heated parliamentary election campaign. The vote is scheduled for May 6.

Singapore’s media is tightly controlled through prohibitive laws like the Newspapers and Printing Presses Act and the Defamation Act. The Undesirable Publications Act allows the government to prohibit the import, sale, and circulation of any publication it judges to be “contrary to the public’s interests.”

People’s Action Party members, including party founder and former prime minister Lee Kuan Yew, have sued for defamation in several suits against local and foreign journalists.

“The tactic of using the courts fools no one; the government is clearly bent on stifling its critics,” CPJ Executive Director Ann Cooper said. “We urge the government leaders involved to immediately drop these criminal charges and begin to allow more political discussion in the media.”

Aggravated defamation charges carry monetary damages of up to 500,000 Singapore dollars (US$312,500) and possible jail terms. Six of the eight politicians directly involved in the production of The New Democrat‘s most recent edition have publicly apologized for the story. Rather than face the cost of legislation and possible punishment, Melodies Press also apologized its role in producing the publication through a paid advertisement in the government-controlled Straits Times newspaper.

Chee Suan Juan, the Democratic Party secretary-general, and his sister, Chee Siok Chin, a candidate, have refused to apologize for the article.

The Lees’ lawyer has also threatened to hold the accused parties liable for additional defamation charges for each copy of The New Democrat sold since the suit was filed in the last week of April. A Singapore Democrat Party member told CPJ that the party had sold around 5,000 copies of the 10,000-copy print run when the Lees filed the charges last week.

People’s Action Party leaders, including former prime minister Lee Kuan Yew, have a long record of filing defamation complaints against opposition politicians, bankrupting several in the process. Chee Suan Juan, a free speech advocate, recently lost a three-year battle in a defamation case brought by Lee Kuan Yew.

In early April, the People’s Action Party-led government banned political discussions over the Internet during the election campaign, effectively pulling the plug on opposition parties’ plans to bypass the state-controlled mainstream media and promote their policies and broadcast their rallies using Internet technologies.