Singapore’s War on the Media

I’ve done a fair amount of blogging about my role as a legal adviser to a leading Singaporean dissident, Chee Soon Juan, who is currently doing his best to survive an ongoing faux-legal assault against him by the government of this authoritarian city-state, punishing him for nothing more than exercising his constitutional rights to free speech and assembly.  But it’s not only Dr. Chee and his opposition party who fall victim to the paranoia and intolerance of the regime, but also anyone who dares to write about it.

Case in point, this week Singapore’s high court has ruled against Dow Jones Publishing (Asia) in a contempt case which was personally argued by the attorney general.  The newspaper’s crime?  Carrying a couple of editorials and a letter to the editor mentioning the persecution of Chee Soon Juan.  Below is the full text of this important editorial:

Let us begin with an apology to our readers in Asia. Unless they are online, they will not see this editorial. For legal reasons, we are refraining from publishing it in The Wall Street Journal Asia, which circulates in Singapore.

Our subject is free speech and the rule of law in the Southeast Asian city-state — something on which the international press and Singapore’s government have often clashed. We can’t say which side would prevail if the Singapore public could hear an open debate, but the fact is that we know of no foreign publication that has ever won in a Singapore court of law. Virtually every Western publication that circulates in the city-state has faced a lawsuit, or the threat of one.

Which brings us to the ruling against us this week in Singapore’s High Court. Dow Jones Publishing (Asia) was found guilty of contempt of court for two editorials and a letter to the editor published in The Wall Street Journal Asia in June and July. The Attorney General, who personally argued the contempt case against us, characterized the articles as “an attack on the courts and judiciary of Singapore inasmuch as they impugn the integrity, the impartiality and the independence of the Court.”

In suing for contempt, Singapore chose to go after us for the most basic kind of journalism. The first editorial, “Democracy in Singapore,” reported on a damages hearing in a defamation case brought (and won) by former Prime Minister Lee Kuan Yew against opposition politician Chee Soon Juan. The second editorial, “Judging Singapore’s Judiciary,” informed readers what an international legal organization had said about Singapore’s courts.

Regarding the first editorial, we’ll note that court proceedings are privileged under Singapore law, which means they can be reported — though Singapore’s media rarely do the job. Mr. Chee wrote a letter in response to the first editorial, which we published and which is cited in the contempt charge. We also published two letters from Mr. Lee’s spokeswoman.

In the second editorial, we reported on the International Bar Association’s critical study of the rule of law in Singapore. This is the same outfit that held its annual conference in Singapore last year, a meeting that Mr. Lee himself touted as a sign of confidence in Singapore’s courts. The Law Society of Singapore is a member of the IBA. If reporting on what such a body says is contemptuous of the judiciary, then Singapore is saying that its courts are above any public scrutiny.

Again, we published a letter from the Singapore government responding to the editorial. This one was from the Law Ministry, which blasted the IBA report and us for repeating its “vague allegations.” The IBA then weighed in, in a posting on its Web site, saying it wished “to correct some inaccurate comments” in Singapore’s letter. It invites readers to read the report and “see for themselves” that its views are “based on comprehensive examples and evidence.” The IBA homepage is

In his ruling, Justice Tay Young Kwang refers to us as a “repeat offender.” He’s right in the narrow sense that this isn’t the first time Singapore has pursued the Journal Asia for contempt. In 1985, the newspaper and its editors were sued over an editorial about legal actions against opposition politician J.B. Jeyaretnam. The editors apologized.

In 1989, the paper was sued for contempt again, this time over a news story that quoted Dow Jones’s then-president, Peter Kann. Mr. Kann had criticized a libel judgment won by Mr. Lee against the Far Eastern Economic Review, the Journal Asia’s sister publication. The paper, its editor, publisher, local distributor and local printer were all named. They lost.

We are not eager to return to that fractious era, when the Journal Asia had its circulation severely restricted in Singapore and the paper’s reporters were unwelcome. Since 1991, when the newspaper and Mr. Lee reached a settlement, our relationship with Singapore had been more or less stable until the latest contempt charge.

Meanwhile, in September, the Far Eastern Economic Review lost a defamation case brought by Mr. Lee and his son, current Prime Minister Lee Hsien Loong, over an interview it published with opposition leader Mr. Chee. The elder Mr. Lee has long used defamation suits to silence his critics in the press and among the political opposition.

As for this week’s contempt ruling, the first line of Justice Tay’s decision is revealing as a standard for Singapore justice. “Words sometimes mean more than what they appear to say on the surface,” he writes, going on to interpret the words as contemptuous because they had an “inherent tendency” to “scandalise the court.” The fine he levied, S$25,000 ($16,500), is the largest ever meted out for such an offense. Justice Tay expressed the hope that it will deter “future transgressions.”

We’ll pay the fine. We’ll also continue to express our views about politics, the courts and other subjects that we think our readers should know about. And we’ll let readers decide what to make of the judiciary in Singapore.