Singapore court sentences online editor for sedition

Bangkok, March 24, 2016 – The Committee to Protect Journalists condemns a Singaporean court’s sentencing Wednesday of an Australian editor of a now-defunct independent Singaporean news website, and calls on authorities to stop jailing journalists and censoring websites.

Ai Takagi, co-editor of The Real Singapore news site, pled guilty to four counts of sedition on March 8 for four separate articles published on her website, according to news reports. On Wednesday District Judge Salina Ishak found that the articles “were intended from the outset to provoke unwarranted hatred against foreigners in Singapore,” and sentenced her to 10 months in prison, reports said. The news website was the first to have its license revoked by a state media regulatory board formed under regulations introduced for online media in 2013, according to CPJ research.

“The conviction of journalist Ai Takagi risks further suffocating Singapore’s once-vibrant online media space,” said Shawn Crispin, CPJ’s senior Southeast Asia representative. “Rather than imprisoning and threatening journalists with sedition charges, Singaporean authorities should promote an open Internet.”

Police arrested Takagi, a law student who helped edit the site from Australia, last year while she was vacationing in Singapore, according to press accounts. News reports said she is now eight weeks pregnant and may have to start serving her sentence before giving birth.

The court on Wednesday released Takagi on bail and allowed her a month to settle her personal affairs before reporting to prison, news reports said. She read an apology in court saying she was not “fully aware” of the sensitivity of racial and religious issues in Singapore while editing the site, and admitted that certain stories were fabricated, reports said. There was no indication she intended to appeal the decision, according to reports.

Her husband, Yang Kaiheng, a Singaporean national and the site’s co-editor, will stand trial next week on the same sedition charges, which carry maximum penalties of three years in prison, according to reports. Yang has maintained his innocence, the reports said.

One of the articles in question wrongfully identified a Filipino family as having stoked violence during a Hindu religious ceremony, according to news reports. Another report alleged that a Chinese woman had encouraged her grandson to urinate in a bottle while traveling on Singaporean public transport, reports said. The website published mainly crowd-sourced articles that appeared on the site without much editorial control, the reports said.

In June 2013, Singapore introduced regulation of all websites that report on local news and receive more than 50,000 unique visitors with IP addresses in Singapore for two consecutive months, according to news reports. Such websites must apply for a license, pay a bond of 50,000 Singapore dollars (about US$37,500) bond, and remove any “prohibited content,” including news deemed detrimental to public interests, within 24 hours of being contacted by the Media Development Authority.

Singaporean authorities have used tight controls and strict laws to censor the local news media and threaten foreign media. On March 14, a court ordered independent blogger Roy Ngerng to pay Singaporean Prime Minister Lee Hsien Loong $109,000 in libel damages for a post on his personal blog that Lee’s lawyers claimed alleged the prime minister had misappropriated state pension funds, according to reports. The order, which followed a November 2014 conviction, will require Ngerng to make monthly payments to the premier over a 17-year period, the reports said. Lee’s lawyer said Ngerng’s allegations were “false and baseless,” according to news reports.

EDITOR’S NOTE: The fourth paragraph has been corrected to indicate that Takagi is eight weeks pregnant.