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Singapore Prime Minister Lee Hsien Loong is seen in Singapore on November 15, 2018. The prime minister recently threatened to sue the editor of a local news website for libel. (AFP/Lillian Suwanrumpha)

Singapore prime minister threatens to sue The Online Citizen for libel

September 3, 2019 10:30 AM ET

Bangkok, September 3, 2019 -- Singaporean Prime Minister Lee Hsien Loong should drop his legal threat against news website The Online Citizen and cease his government’s long-running legal harassment of independent media, the Committee to Protect Journalists said today.

On September 1, Lee’s press secretary, Chang Li Lin, sent a letter to The Online Citizen’s chief editor, Terry Xu, threatening to file libel charges if he did not retract an article about Lee’s allegedly strained relationship with his siblings from the outlet’s website and Facebook page and publish an unconditional apology by September 4, according to news reports citing the letter.

Xu told CPJ via email that he temporarily removed the article from The Online Citizen’s website while he consulted with his lawyers over how to respond to the threat.

“Singaporean Prime Minister Lee Hsien Loong should drop his wrongheaded legal threat against The Online Citizen and stop harassing the press,” said Shawn Crispin, CPJ’s senior Southeast Asia representative. “Singapore will never be taken seriously as a democracy as long as Lee continues to threaten journalists with these types of punitive lawsuits.”

The letter claimed the article, titled “PM Lee’s wife, Ho Ching weirdly shares article on cutting ties with family members,” published on August 15, contained false allegations made against the prime minister by his sister, local English-language daily The Straits Times reported.

The article focused on a widely reported family disagreement over whether to preserve or demolish the former residence of national founder Lee Kuan Yew, Lee’s father, according to The Straits Times.

Under Singapore's Defamation Act and penal code, libel is punishable by up to two years in prison, a fine, or both.

CPJ emailed Lee’s press secretary’s office for comment but did not immediately receive a reply.

In November 2018, police raided Xu’s home and interrogated him for more than eight hours over a criminal defamation complaint filed by the Info-Communications Media Development Authority over a letter critical of the prime minister published on The Online Citizen, as CPJ reported at the time. Xu’s hearings in that case will begin in a state court in November, he told CPJ.

In 2011, Lee’s government forced The Online Citizen to register as a “political association,” thereby requiring the outlet to reveal the identities of its staff members and barring it from receiving foreign funding, according to CPJ reporting.

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