S'pore muzzles blogger 'Mr Brown'

Posted by Simon Burns under Human Rights Watch on 29 July 2006

Stricter rules apply to mainstream media than to 'internet chatter', says minister

An official rebuke to popular blogger Mr Brown over a newspaper article seen as critical of Singapore's government has sparked online and offline protests.

Some comments were deemed acceptable when published in blogs, but not when they spilled over into the mainstream media, according to a government minister who had earlier praised the blogger's work.

'Mr Brown', whose real name is Lee Kin Mun, claims that he was suspended from his position as a part-time columnist for a local newspaper after the government complained about one of his articles.

The 36 year-old writer and humorist publishes a popular blog and ongoing series of satirical podcasts. The popularity of his work had secured him a newspaper column.

The opinion piece that sparked the dispute was published on 30 June in the Today newspaper.

Lee complained about the rising cost of living in Singapore and hinted that bad news about higher prices might have been held back until after recent elections.

He also poked fun at plans for a high-tech cashless society, and told readers how new means-testing rules had increased the cost of education for his autistic daughter.

Four days after Lee's article was printed, the Ministry of Information, Communications and the Arts responded with a critical letter published in the newspaper. Lee said that the paper suspended his weekly column shortly afterwards.

The official letter accused Lee of "distorting the truth" and stated that it was "wrong" for the humorist to "make light" of government technology plans.

"Instead of a diatribe Mr Brown should offer constructive criticism and alternatives. And he should come out from behind his pseudonym to defend his views openly," said the government statement.

Critics of the Ministry's letter pointed out that, despite the pseudonym, the true identity of 'Mr Brown' was in fact widely known, and had been published previously in the same newspaper.

Lee's blog posting about the suspension of his column attracted more than 900 supportive comments from readers.

Readers who were later involved in a "flash mob" that gathered at a subway station to show support claimed that they were questioned by plainclothes security officials.

Singapore Information Minister Dr Lee Boon Yang told reporters that stricter rules are applied to mainstream media than to "internet chatter" such as blogs.

"'Mr Brown''s comment was not posted in his blog," the minister told Channel NewsAsia.

"If he had posted the same comment on his blog, we would have treated it as part of the internet chatter and we would have just let it be.

"But he didn't post it. He wrote it and published it in a mainstream newspaper. That's the difference."

One month earlier, the minister had congratulated the blogger in a public speech for his "clever and funny work", while warning that humorous treatment could be inappropriate for some issues.

Singapore is a parliamentary democracy with a population of 4.3 million which has been dominated by the same political party for more than 40 years.

While the island's government has been lauded for providing a high standard of living despite very limited natural resources, it has been criticised, both overseas and at home, for alleged restrictions on human rights and press freedom.

Government ministers occasionally sue journalists, opposition politicians and other critics for defamation.

Sources and Relevant Links:

vnunet.com Singapore muzzles blogger 'Mr Brown' 14 Jul 2006

mrbrown.com Mr.brown's Opinion piece

Today Online Critical letter from government

mrbrown.com 900 supportive comments from readers

Think Centre More good years? One year after GE, quality of life reduced03 November 2002

Think Centre Budget 2003 a slap in the face

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