Singapore Extends Crackdown on Internet Journalism

Yang Kaiheng, the 27-year-old editor of a now-defunct website called The Real Singapore is expected to go on trial next week after his pregnant wife and co-defender, Ai Takagi, was sentenced to 10 months in jail on March 23 despite pleading guilty on sedition charges and apologizing.

If the sentence for Takagi, an Australian citizen, is any indication, Yang probably will also go to jail despite the fact that his wife chose – unsuccessfully – to throw herself on the mercy of the court. She is about two months pregnant and will likely give birth to their child in jail. Takagi, a law student who helped Yang edit the site from Australia, was arrested last year when she came to Singapore on holiday, according to press accounts. Since the site was shut by authorities in May of 2015, the couple has been operating two ramen stalls.

The sentencing of Takagi is the latest in a sudden rush of harsh and seemingly unprecedented charges and other actions against independent Internet sites, impelling a wide range of critics to charge the Singaporean government with draconian tactics to shut off dissent.

Having throttled the local mainstream press and intimidated international media through contempt of court charges and defamation lawsuits, Singapore turned its attention to the Internet in mid-2013, pushing through regulations requiring websites to post a S$50,000 bond, submit to media censorship, take down articles that offend the government within 48 hours or face lost of the bond, among other limitations.

Others to come under the government’s attack are Roy Ngerng, a 34-year-old blogger, who last month was ordered to pay S$180,000 in fines and court charges for defaming Prime Minister Lee Hsien Loong. Ngerng has turned to crowdfunding in the effort to pay off his fines, which would otherwise take 17 years to pay off. In addition The Online Citizen, Singapore’s longest-running independent online news site, is facing government harassment, has been denounced in Parliament, and is being operated as a one-man show by its 34-year-old editor, Terry Xu, who hasn’t been paid for four or five months, he says. Temasek Review, the island republic’s original independent news portal, shut down voluntarily earlier, reportedly under unspecified government pressures.

The New York-based Committee to Protect Journalists called on the government to stop jailing journalists and stop censoring websites.

"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."

Benjamin Israel, the Southeast Asia representative for Reporters Without Borders, called the sentence disproportionate and said Takagi should not be jailed. Israel went on to call for the sedition law to be abrogated and charged the law is being used for political purposes and to muzzle dissenting voices.

The spate of charges against independent bloggers has also earned a rebuke from Human Rights Watch, whose Asian Deputy Director, Phil Robertson, told Asia Sentinel that Singapore “strongly controls all the radio, TV and major publications in the country, feedings its people a continuous stream of biased news that puts the government in the best possible light, and viciously attacks government critics. The only way Singaporeans can escape this barrage is on-line, through the few news portals that try to report all the stories about Singapore, both good and bad. But reflecting its authoritarian orientation towards free expression, the Singapore government has continually sought to shut those down with regulations, harass their editors, and when possible, manufacture criminal charges against them.”

The case against Takagi has also earned a rare rebuke from the Australian government, which issued a statement saying the government regrets that Ms Takagi “was given a custodial sentence, given she is young, pregnant and had issued an apology," a spokesman for the Department of Foreign Affairs and Trade said. Australia rarely comments on judicial cases in other countries other than in matters involving death sentences.

Takagi, a Japanese-Australian, apologized publicly, saying she was sincerely sorry for the harm she had caused and adding that "I was not fully aware of the level of sensitivity needed” and saying that in the future she would be "more careful with my conduct." The judge, however, said the apology was insincere.

The website, which came into being in 2013, was shut down in May of last year after the Media Development Authority accused the couple of fomenting racial hatred. It was extremely successful, earning the equivalent of US$350,000 in advertising dollars in a year and a half before it was closed, and totaling nearly 135 million pageviews between May of 2014 and March of 2015, according to The Online Citizen, as the publication capitalized on crowd-sourced reports of tensions between native Singaporeans and foreign workers, who make up nearly 1.5 million of the country’s population.

Takagi will begin her jail sentence on April 22 after requesting the court to give her time to make arrangements to manage the ramen stalls and work out the means to care for Yang’s paralyzed father, who had a stroke last year.

“Now that Ai Takagi has pleaded guilty to sedition, there is little doubt that her Singaporean husband, Yang Keihang, will also be convicted when he goes to trial next week,” said Human Rights’ Robertson. “There are serious concerns that once The Real Singapore is out of the way, the government may refocus its fire on the other on-line portals that provide independent news on Singapore. Governments around the world, and international business based in Singapore, need to tell Singapore's rulers that freedom of expression and the press are important and must be protected, and that censorship and control of the media is out of line with Singapore's professed aspirations to be a modern, democratic nation."