Singapore Government Threatens Critics and Independent Media with Defamation Claims
Defamation cases against a news site and blogger have put the country’s severe restrictions on free speech back in the spotlight.
The cases, which target blogger Leong Sze Hian and the political news site “The Online Citizen”, re-raise longstanding concerns about the consequences of criminal defamation laws for freedom of expression. In Singapore, defamation is an offense that carries a maximum penalty of two-year imprisonment and a fine.
The Online Citizen (TOC) is facing a criminal defamation probe for publishing a letter written by Willy Sum, a government critic. Police say the letter is defamatory because it accused top government officials of corruption.
On November 20, police raided the home of TOC editor-in-chief Terry Xu, confiscating computers and other equipment, and forcing the news website to declare a hiatus from publication. Xu was also interrogated by the police for eight hours.
A crowdfunding effort by its subscribers allowed TOC to buy new hardware and resume operations. In a joint statement, several Southeast Asia-based civil society groups urged the government to drop the defamation probe against TOC:
They have also stressed that TOC removed the alleged defamatory letter as soon as it received a takedown notice from the Infocomm Media Development Authority (IMDA), an agency of the Singaporean government.
The case of “States Times Review”
On November 7, blogger Leong Sze Hian shared on his Facebook page an article published by a Malaysian news website, TheCoverage.my, about a possible link between Singapore’s prime minister and a high-profile corruption scandal in Malaysia involving Malaysian Development Berhad, a government-run development company.
In early December, Leong revealed that Prime Minister Lee Hsien Loong had filed a defamation claim against him, simply for sharing the article.
The article cited a story by States Times Review, an Australia-based political blog aimed at Singaporeans, which was later found to contain baseless allegations. It claimed that editor-in-chief of investigative journalism platform Sarawak Report, Clare Rewcastle, had mentioned Singapore as “one of the key investigation targets, alongside Switzerland and the United States” in an interview with Malaysian media. Sarawak Report later rebutted this claim, calling it “erroneous” and making a request for STR to correct it.
The Singaporean state agency IMDA requested the publisher of States Times Review to take down the article, but the website refused. Consequently, IMDA directed Singaporean ISPs to block access to the entire website, along with other Malaysian media that had republished the story. States Times Review ceased operations shortly thereafter.
Singaporean laws empower the IMDA to order local ISPs to remove any material it deems against the public interest, social order, or national harmony. Local news websites are also required to remove a content deemed illegal by the government within 24 hours. These orders are not subject to judicial approval.
The IMDA also requested that Leong remove the Facebook post on November 10. Leong complied, but then received a letter from the prime minister’s lawyers demanding a public apology and compensation for damages.
News about the defamation case against Leong alarmed many people. Ghui, a TOC contributor, warned that it could set a dangerous legal precedent:
Ghui also questioned whether there was a strong enough case for charging Leong with defamation, given that he had complied with the government’s takedown notice and did not write a caption for the original article when he shared it on Facebook.
Some believe that Leong was singled out because of his previous affiliation with a human rights group which had been advocating free speech and other civil liberties in Singapore.
Roy was ordered by the court to apologize to the prime minister and pay the equivalent of USD $106,383 in fines. Roy is now based in Taiwan.
Leong has refrained from commenting on the details of the case, but affirmed his commitment to free speech:
Facebook refused to remove the post
Legal ramifications for Facebook
The IMDA also requested that Facebook remove the States Times Article from its platform, but the company refused to comply. A statement by the company from November 10 said: “Facebook has indicated that they will not accede to IMDA’s request”.
Facebook’s refusal prompted Singapore’s Ministry of Law to follow up with a statement calling for tougher legislation on “fake news”:
Singapore is among the many countries in the world considering such legislation. In January 2018, the Parliament established a committee to address the problem of “deliberate online falsehoods”, or disinformation on the internet.
Community Action Network, a local rights advocacy group, disagreed with Singapore’s government’s order to ISPs to block the websites in connection to the States Times Review case: