New Charges by Singapore Against the Wall Street Journal

The

Singapore government has again gone after the Wall Street Journal,

this time charging Melanie Kirkpatrick, a longtime New York-based

editorial page editor, over two editorials and a letter to the editor

that ran in the paper’s Asian edition last July and August.

Being

charged in the Singapore courts is tantamount to being convicted. As

far as can be determined, the lawsuit-happy government and the family

of former Prime Minister Lee Kuan Yew have never lost a case against

the press in its own courts. The Singapore attorney general said the

submissions to the newspaper were guilty of "scandalizing the

court" by impugning its integrity, impartiality and

independence.

The

current case grows out of a decision in which the Singapore High

Court fined Dow Jones Publishing Co. (Asia), the publisher of the

Rupert Murdoch-owned Wall Street Journal Asia itself as a company

last November for the same case. At S$25,000, the fine was the

highest ever brought against a journalistic enterprise in Singapore

and, according to the judge, was because the published items

"contained insinuations of bias, lack of impartiality and lack

of independence" on the part of Singapore's judiciary. The

government has now gone after Kirkpatrick as well.

According

to the Journal, the first of the editorials, titled "Democracy

in Singapore," concerned comments made in a Singapore court as

damages were being assessed against Chee Soon Juan, the much-arrested

head of the opposition Singapore Democratic Party, and his sister and

colleague, Chee Siok Chin. In 2006, the two lost a defamation suit

brought by Lee Kuan Yew, now Singapore’s Minister Mentor, and

his son, Prime Minister Lee Hsien Loong, over an article the Chees

published in their party newsletter that the court held implied

corruption on the part of the government.

The Singapore

attorney general, the Journal said in a news story, also complained

about a letter to the editor written by Chee and a Journal editorial

that cited a report by the International Bar Association's Human

Rights Institute on the state of democracy and human rights in

Singapore. The 72-page report became an embarrassment to both the

government and the Lee family after Singapore invited the

International Bar Association to hold its annual convention in the

city. The report, titled "Prosperity versus individual

rights? Human rights, democracy and the rule of law in Singapore,"

makes 18 recommendations which the association urges the Singapore

government to implement as a matter of priority.

Singapore’s

government, the report said, "is currently failing to meet

established international standards in these areas." Reports of

opposition candidates being targeted for criticizing the government,

it says, "are of significant concern and threaten democracy and

the rule of law in Singapore." It describes an "apparent

climate of fear and self-censorship surrounding the press in

Singapore," and that the "increasing tendency for high

profile and respected publications to pay large out-of-court

settlements to avoid litigation with PAP officials and the continued

run of success within in-court claims is worrying."

Last

September, the attorney general charged three youths with

scandalizing the judiciary when they showed up in the courthouse

wearing pictures of a kangaroo wearing a judge’s gown

during a court hearing to assess damages in a lawsuit filed by the

Lees against Chee and his sister.

The

Singapore government filed its first contempt charges against what

was then the Asian Wall Street Journal for an editorial in the

mid-1980s after the late Joshua B. Jeyaretnam, then Singapore’s

sole opposition member of parliament, was acquitted by Senior

District Judge Michael Khoo in a Singapore court of making a false

declaration about the accounts of his Workers’ Party. The

editorial pointed out that Khoo lost his job as a senior judge and

was unceremoniously moved to the attorney general’s chambers,

widely considered to be a much lower posting. The government, then

headed by Lee Kuan Yew, charged that the Journal’s editorial

had brought the government into disrepute. From that point forward, a

long string of charges were filed against the Journal and the Far

Eastern Economic Review, which is also owned by Dow Jones.

Dow

Jones has hardly been alone, however. The government or the Lee

family, including his son, have filed defamation or contempt charges

against virtually every major publication in Asia, including the

International Herald Tribune, the Financial Times, Time Magazine, the

Economist, the now-defunct AsiaWeek and any other publication that

refuses to toe the Lee line. The Far Eastern Economic Review,

especially under the late editor Derek Davies, was a particular

target. The Review in September was fined for having defamed

the Lees pere and fils, in relation to an interview with Chee Soon

Juan in which the serially jailed opposition leader said Singapore

would never change until Lee Kuan Yew was dead.

Dow

Jones is now in the hands of the Murdoch-owned News Corp. The current

charges are becoming a test of News Corp's nerve. It is a news

organization that in the past has sought to steer clear of

controversies with governments.

The

media watchdog organization Reporters Without Borders ranks Singapore

140th out of 167 countries surveyed in terms of freedom of the press.

The country has been kicking foreign journalists out for writing

critical articles about the republic since the early 1970s