Rights group criticizes S'pore defamation suits

Posted by under Human Rights Watch on 4 June 2009

Bankrupt Singaporean citizens are prohibited from running for office and may not travel abroad without the government's permission.

AN international rights group called Friday, Oct 17, on Singapore to stop using defamation lawsuits to stifle criticism and bankrupt opposition politicians.

The criticism by Human Rights Watch came in response to the High Court's decision this week to order Chee Soon Juan and his opposition Singapore Democratic Party to pay US$416,000 to Prime Minister Lee Hsien Loong and his father, Lee Kuan Yew, in damages stemming from a 2006 defamation case.

Human Rights Watch said the decision was an example of how the city-state's rulers use strict free speech laws to squash political dissent.

"Using defamation laws to silence peaceful political speech makes a mockery of Singapore's claim to be a model democracy," Elaine Pearson, deputy Asia director at the New York-based rights organization, said in a statement.

Government leaders justify suing political opponents, saying it is necessary to defend their personal and professional reputation since it bears on their ability to govern properly and command respect from Singaporeans.

"In Singapore, opposition politicians have the right to criticize the government and government leaders, but that does not entitle them to tell lies or defame," K. Bhavani, spokesperson from the Ministry of Information, Communications and the Arts, said in a statement Friday.

"If they do, the leaders must either sue to clear their names and be prepared to be cross-examined in open court, or allow the lies to stand unchallenged and the public to believe that the defamations are true."

Opposition leaders contend that defamation laws are applied selectively to silence criticism while the government says restrictions on speech and assembly are necessary to preserve the economic prosperity and racial stability of the multiethnic city-state of 4.8 million people.

The People's Action Party has ruled Singapore since self-governance began in 1959 and currently has 82 of Parliament's 84 members.

Chee, who was forced into bankruptcy in 2006 by a US$300,000 ruling that found him guilty of defaming former Prime Ministers Lee Kuan Yew and Goh Chok Tong, said the ruling may bankrupt his party and force it out of existence.

The court ruled that a 2006 party newspaper article, which questioned the government for its handling of a scandal at the National Kidney Foundation charity, was libelous.

Bankrupt Singaporean citizens are prohibited from running for office and may not travel abroad without the government's permission.

The government also filed defamation lawsuits against Joshua B. Jeyaretnam, who became the country's first opposition politician elected to Parliament in 1981. Jeyaretnam was driven into bankruptcy in 2001 by defamation cases brought by the two Lees and Goh, who was prime minister from when Lee Kuan Yew stepped down in 1990 until Lee Hsien Loong took over in 2004.

Jeyaretnam estimated he paid more than US$925,000 in damages and court costs over the years. He emerged from bankruptcy this year before dying of heart failure earlier this month at age 82.

"The history of defamation in Singapore shows a pattern of making people pay dearly for exercising the basic right of peaceful expression," said Pearson.

Singapore's leaders have also sued journalists several times in past years for alleged defamation. They have won lawsuits and damages against Bloomberg, The Economist, the International Herald Tribune and the Far Eastern Economic Review.

Source: Rights group criticizes S'pore defamation suits
Associated Press, 17 October 2008, Singapore.

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