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Singapore's Merlion statue is lit up in front of the city skyline in March 2018. Authorities are investigating a criminal defamation complaint against an independent news website. (AFP/Roslan Rahman)

Singapore police seize equipment, interrogate editor of The Online Citizen

November 26, 2018 11:47 AM ET

On November 20, 2018, five police officers seized a desktop computer, mobile devices, and laptops from the Singapore home of Terry Xu, chief editor of the independent news website The Online Citizen, according to news reports. Xu was summoned to the city-state's Cantonment Complex at 3pm that day, where authorities interrogated him for over eight hours as part of a criminal defamation complaint, before releasing the editor without charge, news reports said.

The criminal investigation stems from a reader's letter published on The Online Citizen on September 4, 2018 that was critical of Prime Minister Lee Hsien Loong's People's Action Party-led government, the reports said.

The letter, published under the name Willy Sum, alleged there was "corruption at the highest echelons" of government and that Lee's administration was "tampering with the Constitution."

On September 18, the Info-communications Media Development Authority (IMDA), a statutory board under the Ministry of Communications and Information, ordered The Online Citizen to remove the letter within six hours, a takedown request that the site obliged, Xu wrote in a post on the news site's Facebook page on November 21, 2018.

However, on October 4, 2018 the IMDA filed a criminal defamation report with police against The Online Citizen Xu wrote in the same Facebook post. Criminal defamation convictions carry possible two-year prison sentences and fines.

CPJ could not determine if authorities had also filed a legal complaint against Sum.

An IMDA spokesperson quoted by The Straits Times newspaper acknowledged his agency filed the criminal complaint, and said that the reader's letter "made serious allegations that undermine the public's confidence in the government's integrity."

Xu said in the Facebook post that authorities denied a request for the confiscated equipment to be returned, and told him the devices can only be returned after the investigation has been completed. The Online Citizen, established in 2006, is one of Singapore's few independent news sites, staffed mainly by volunteers.

In a statement published November 26, 2018, The Online Citizen said that the investigation was ongoing but that it had resumed publishing after a nearly week-long "hiatus" after purchasing new hardware to run the site.

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