SINGAPORE (AFP) - – Media rights watchdog Reporters Without Borders has urged Singapore Prime Minister Lee Hsien Loong, his father Lee Kuan Yew and other top officials to stop taking "libel actions" against journalists.
RSF secretary general Jean-Francois Julliard wrote an "open letter" to the Singapore leader Thursday asking for a meeting about the group's observations and proposals "for guaranteeing press freedom" in the affluent city-state.
His letter followed an apology and payment of damages by the New York Times Company to the Lees and former prime minister Goh Chok Tong over an allegedly defamatory article.
"A foreign news organisation has yet again been forced to apologise to you and your father and pay you a large sum of money for publishing an article you did not like," Julliard said.
He urged the government to "put a stop to the libel actions" being taken against journalists.
The New York Times Company on Wednesday issued an apology to the Lees and Goh over an article about political dynasties it published in February in its global edition, the International Herald Tribune (IHT).
The article, entitled "All In The Family", was written by Hong Kong-based columnist Philip Bowring.
Davinder Singh, a lawyer for the three men, said the New York Times Company and Bowring would pay damages totalling 160,000 Singapore dollars (114,000 US) to the leaders, who said their reputations had been sullied by the article.
An apology that appeared in the IHT's Wednesday edition said the article may have implied that the younger Lee did not get his job on merit.
Singapore's leaders have won hundreds of thousands of dollars in damages in defamation cases against critics and foreign publications.
The leaders have defended their actions as necessary to protect their reputations from unfounded attacks.
"Freedom of expression is not a source of political unrest. Quite the contrary," said Julliard, who proposed a meeting with the prime minister.
"We have no comment," the prime minister's press secretary Chen Huai Liang said in response to an AFP query.
Last year, Hong Kong-based Far Eastern Economic Review and its editor paid more than 400,000 dollars to settle a defamation suit filed by Prime Minister Lee and the elder Lee, the founding father of modern Singapore.
A Wall Street Journal senior editor was fined 10,000 Singapore dollars in March 2009 for contempt of court over three articles that were ruled to have insulted the city-state's judiciary.
Open letter to Prime Minister Lee Hsien Loong
Prime Minister Lee Hsien Loong
Prime Minister’s Office
Paris, 25 March 2010
Dear Prime Minister,
A foreign news organisation has yet again been forced to apologise to you and your father and pay you a large sum of money for publishing an article you did not like. This time it is the New York Times Co. that is a victim of this double punishment because of a compliant judicial system that always rules in favour of you and your family in all the lawsuits you bring against foreign news media.
Before the New York Times Co., you succeeded in punishing the Far Eastern Economic Review (FEER), FinanceAsia.com, The Economist, International Herald Tribune and Asian Wall Street Journal for their coverage of the political and economic situation in your country.
Threatened by a trial, the New York Times Co. apologised to you and your father, Lee Kuan Yew, for the article “All in the Family,” written by Philip Bowring and published in the 15 February issue of the International Herald Tribune. As well as an apology, this US media company had to pay 114,000 US dollars in damages.
Your lawyer, Davinder Singh, said Bowring’s article violated an “agreement” between your family and the International Herald Tribune, which was sentenced in 1994 to pay a large sum in damages for an article entitled “The claims about Asian values don’t usually bear scrutiny.”
The now defunct Far Eastern Economic Review agreed last November, after a long legal wrangle, to pay you and your father 290,000 US dollars in damages. Despite a lack of evidence, Singaporean judges ruled in favour of your family both in the original trial and on appeal without a thought for media freedom.
Reporters Without Borders condemns the judicial harassment which you and your father have practiced for years in order to prevent foreign news media from taking too close an interest in how you run your country. It does serious and lasting harm to press freedom in Singapore.
Your government has repeatedly displayed a disturbing inability to tolerate foreign journalists. Last October, for example, Benjamin Bland, a British freelancer who strings for The Economist and The Daily Telegraph, was denied a visa and permission to cover an APEC summit in Singapore. “I was forced to leave Singapore after the government refused to renew my work visa without any explanation,” Bland told Reporters Without Borders.
But the censorship has above all affected local media and local artistic production. In October 2009, for example, the ministry of information, communication and arts upheld a ban on a documentary by Singaporean filmmaker Martyn See about government opponent Said Zahari. Watch the video: http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=mOI2...
In response to the publication of the Reporters Without Borders 2009 press freedom index, in which Singapore was ranked 133rd out of 175 countries, your law minister, K. Shanmugam, described it as “absurd” and “disconnected from reality.”
Unfortunately, the facts show that we are right.
In the six years since you became prime minister and said you favoured an “open” society, we have seen very few improvements in the situation of free speech.
We therefore think your government should take the following measures as a matter of urgency:
1. Put a stop to the libel actions which you and your relatives have been bringing against Singaporean and foreign media that cover Singaporean developments in an independent manner. As the UN special rapporteur for freedom of expression recently said, the prime minister, his minister and high officials must refrain from suing journalists over their articles and comments.
2. Amend the criminal code so as to abolish prison sentences for press offences.
3. Amend the press law, especially the articles concerning the granting of publication licences. The current restrictions are preventing the emergence of independent media. The film law should also be relaxed.
4. Reform the national security law so as to abolish administrative detention, which allows the authorities to imprison people because of what they think.
5. Reform the Media Development Authority so that it is no longer able to censor and can solely make recommendations about TV programmes and films.
6. Allow government opponents and civil society representatives unrestricted access to the public media.
7. Guarantee the editorial independence of all the media owned by Singapore Press Holdings (SPH) and Media Corporation of Singapore (Mediacorp).
8. Transfer the money that your family has obtained in damages from foreign and Singaporean news media to a support fund for imprisoned journalists that Reporters Without Borders proposes to set up.
We regret that you, the members of your government and your father keep citing the need to guarantee Singapore’s stability as grounds for controlling the media and maintaining its draconian laws. Countries that show the most respect for press freedom, such as Finland and Norway, are peaceful and prosperous democracies. Freedom of expression is not a source of political unrest. Quite the contrary.
You have perpetuated your father’s legacy by continuing to harass and intimidate news media. As a result, aside from a few websites specialising in Singapore, no news outlet can publish independent news and information about issues affecting the political situation in your country.
We would be very honoured to be able to meet with you in order to talk about our observations and our proposals for guaranteeing press freedom in Singapore in person.