Singapore and Freedom of the Press

Press_freedom1.jpgMost readers of this blog are used to occasional coverage of freedom of press issues in Russia, and discussions of the impact on civil society and democracy when the state targets journalists with impunity. As I announced yesterday in a blog post, I recently starting working a pro-bono case representing Singapore’s leading opposition party, and it is in this area of freedom of press that we can observe some of the strongest parallel trends in both countries. According to a study by watchdog reporters without borders, Russia ranked a dismal 144 in the Freedom of Press Index – which is below scores awarded to Yemen and Afghanistan. Singapore ranked only slightly better at 141. Whereas government critical journalists in Russia, from Anna Politkovskaya to Ivan Safronov to Magomed Yevloyev, tend to find themselves killed in mysterious circumstances, in Singapore, these journalists and publications usually find themselves at the wrong end of devastating defamation lawsuits.

Such was the case for Far Eastern Economic Review, a Dow Jones-owned publication, which recently got nailed in a defamation case by Singapore’s founding statesman Lee Kuan Yew and his son, Prime Minister Lee Hsien Long, for having written a favorable article about the work of my new client, Dr. Chee Soon Juan. The suit may not end there, as the state-controlled courts appear to be considering bringing charges against other Wall Street Journal and Dow Jones executives.It is at this point that I should also issue a sincere warning to my readers. Writing about (or even reading) about the authoritarian government of Singapore can be extremely dangerous to your health. Just ask the American blogger Gopalan Nair, who is Singapore’s version of Savva Terentiev, who is facing three months in jail for having published something considered insulting to a particular judge.With six trials coming up over the next four months against the country’s democratic activists, international attention is urgently needed to help the situation. The international community has done a very good job in its thorough and complete condemnation of the murder of Anna Politkovskaya and other incidents of state abuse of freedom of the press in Russia, and the situation in Singapore should not be ignored simply because it is a smaller or less convenient government to criticize. The size and scope of the problem is comparable, and these brave men and women deserve our support.