Singapore: CPJ condemns ban on Far Eastern Economic Review

New York, October 2, 2006—The Committee to Protect Journalists today condemned a ban on the Far Eastern Economic Review, which has been hit with a criminal defamation lawsuit by the Singapore leadership for an article about an opposition politician.

The Ministry of Information, Communications and Arts revoked the Review’s distribution rights in Singapore on September 28 after the Hong Kong-based monthly failed to appoint a legal representative and post a S$200,000 (US$126,000) security bond, as required by regulations covering foreign publications announced in August.

That month, Prime Minister Lee Hsien Loong and his father and veteran leader, Lee Kuan Yew, brought a criminal libel suit against the Review’s publisher and editor over a critical article in July about opposition politician Chee Soon Juan. See CPJ’s September 14 alert.

“Singapore’s ban on the Far Eastern Economic Review is nothing but retaliation for critical news coverage,” said Joel Simon, CPJ’s executive director. “Singapore’s leaders should not resort to such an outdated and undemocratic tool as criminal defamation. We call on the authorities to lift the ban on the Review, drop their defamation prosecution, and allow all international publications to be distributed.”

The city-state’s political leadership has frequently resorted to the courts to silence political opponents, often bankrupting them through damages and legal fees. Since the 1980s, they have filed or threatened to file lawsuits against the Review, the International Herald Tribune, The Economist, Business Week, and Bloomberg, among others. Under the Lees, no foreign publication has ever won a government-ordered libel suit that has been heard in Singapore’s courts.

An information ministry official told journalists after announcing the ban on the Review that the distribution of foreign publications in Singapore was a “privilege not a right.”

The new regulations were part of tighter restrictions imposed on offshore newspapers by the government in August. Among those targeted in addition to the Review, were Newsweek, Time, the Financial Times and the International Herald Tribune. These publications are still on sale in Singapore but it is not clear whether they have complied with the new requirements.

“These retroactive regulations furthered the interests of individual members of the government and harmed the magazine financially, but were never justified by the government under the applicable law,” the Review said in a statement. “We regret that this action infringes on the fundamental rights of our Singaporean subscribers and further restricts the already narrow scope of free expression in Singapore,” the statement said. The Review said it will respond more fully to the situation in its next edition, which will be released on October 6. The Review’s online subscription service is still available in Singapore.