Singapore's war on the press continues
Less than a month after Singapore shot itself in the foot with a crackdown on the press in the run up to meetings of the World Bank and International Monetary Fund on its soil, the government seems to have reloaded with lightning speed.
On Thursday, the government announced that not only had it banned the Far Eastern Economic Review for statements made in an interview with opposition leader Chee Soon Juan, it warned its own citizens that they would be committing a criminal offense if they imported or reproduced the magazine for distribution.
In a stern press release, Singapore’s Ministry of Information, Communications and the Arts announced that the revocation followed the failure by the Review to remove the offending piece from its website or to post a S$200,000 bond or appoint an agent for service of court papers in Singapore. The Far Eastern Economic Review has no staff or assets in Singapore, which would make it problematic for the Singapore government to secure damages, an almost certain eventuality since no Singapore government official has ever lost a defamation suit against opposition figures or newspapers in the Singapore courts.
“It is a privilege and not a right for foreign newspapers to circulate in Singapore,” the ministry noted in its press release. “If any foreign newspaper fails to comply with the law, including the NPPA, they cannot expect to enjoy this privilege.”
The Review, now a monthly journal of commentary and opinion, is being sued by Minister Mentor Lee Kuan Yew, the country’s founder, and his son, Lee Hsien Loong, the current prime minister, for unspecified damages in connection with the interview, which among other things contained stinging observations about Singapore and the Lees. Almost immediately after the article ran in the magazine’s July-August issue, the government slapped controls not only on the Review, which circulates about 3,000 copies there, but on four more foreign media companies publishing there -- the others being the International Herald Tribune, the Financial Times, Newsweek and Time Magazine.
The Review said in a statement: “We regret that this action infringes on the fundamental rights of our Singaporean subscribers and further restricts the already narrow scope of free expression in Singapore.”
The magazine added that it would publish a more complete response to the government’s actions in its next issue, which appears on newsstands next Friday. Editor Hugo Restall was unavailable for comment.
The Review said it would post all legal correspondence, filings and the original offending piece for free on the magazine's website, www.feer.com, on Oct. 6.
Singapore earned widespread rebukes not only from free speech and press advocates but from the World Bank and the IMF themselves last month by refusing to allow any protests at the meeting of 16,000 delegates, thus reneging on a pledge to the international financial organizations. Instead it exiled protesters to Batam, an Indonesian island across the Strait of Malacca from the city state. World Bank President Paul Wolfowitz called the government “authoritarian” and said that “a lot of damage has been done, and it’s self-inflicted.”
Ultimately, faced with pressure from the two organizations, the government had to back down in its effort to bar 27 representatives of foreign nongovernmental organizations from the conference. It let in 22 of them although protests were muted at best in a heavily guarded city that pressed 10,000 law enforcement officials into service to guard the well-being of the delegates.
The IMF and World Bank “could hardly have made a worse choice of country in which to hold an international conference," pointed out the group Reporters Without Borders. "Press freedom should be one of the key elements of an open and dynamic economy."
In connection with the Review case, the Committee to Protect Journalists charged earlier that Singapore’s political leadership, “which bristles at any criticism, has resorted to the courts on numerous occasions to silence political opponents, often bankrupting them through damages and legal fees.
“Singapore’s senior leaders are once again using the civil courts to silence the media and stifle criticism,” said Joel Simon, CPJ’s executive director. “This legal fig leaf fools no one. The Prime Minister should drop this suit immediately.”
That is doubtful. In early September, news reports indicated that the Lee family might seek to use the courts in Hong Kong, which has a reciprocal treaty with Singapore, to enforce any judgment it might obtain against the Review.