Two separate defamation cases against a news site and blogger in Singapore have put the country's severe restrictions on free speech back in the spotlight.
The cases, which target blogger Leong Sze Hian and the political news site The Online Citizen, re-raise longstanding concerns about the consequences of criminal defamation laws for freedom of expression. In Singapore, defamation is an offense that carries a maximum penalty of two-year imprisonment and a fine.
Defamation probe against The Online Citizen
The Online Citizen (TOC) is facing a criminal defamation probe for publishing a letter written by Willy Sum, a government critic. Police say the letter is defamatory because it accused top government officials of corruption.
On November 20, police raided the home of TOC editor-in-chief Terry Xu, confiscating computers and other equipment, and forcing the news website to declare a hiatus from publication. Xu was also interrogated by police for eight hours.
A crowdfunding effort by its subscribers allowed TOC to buy new hardware and resume operations. In a joint statement, several Southeast Asia-based civil society groups urged the government to drop the defamation probe against TOC:
Instead of persecuting individuals who ask difficult questions and publish critical views, the government should be more transparent and refute assertions it does not agree with while adhering to the standards of civility and encouraging civil discourse.
They have also stressed that TOC removed the alleged defamatory letter as soon as it received a takedown notice from the Infocomm Media Development Authority (IMDA), an agency of the Singaporean government.
Blogger sued for sharing article on Facebook
On November 7, blogger Leong Sze Hian shared on his Facebook page an article published by a Malaysian news website, TheCoverage.my, about a possible link between Singapore’s prime minister and a high-profile corruption scandal in Malaysia involving Malaysian Development Berhad, a government-run development company.
In early December, Leong revealed that Prime Minister Lee Hsien Loong had filed a defamation claim against him, simply for sharing the article.
The article cited a story by States Times Review, an Australia-based political blog aimed at Singaporeans, which was later found to contain baseless allegations. It claimed that editor-in-chief of investigative journalism platform Sarawak Report, Clare Rewcastle, had mentioned Singapore as “one of the key investigation targets, alongside Switzerland and the United States” in an interview with Malaysian media. Sarawak Report later rebutted this claim, calling it “erroneous” and making a request for STR to correct it.
The Singaporean state agency IMDA requested the publisher of States Times Review to take down the article, but the website refused, so the IMDA instead directed Singaporean ISPs to block access to the entire website, along with other Malaysian media that had republished the story. States Times Review ceased operations shortly thereafter.
Singaporean laws empower the IMDA to order local ISPs to remove any material it deems against the public interest, social order, or national harmony. Local news websites are also required to remove a content deemed illegal by the government within 24 hours. These orders are not subject to judicial approval.
The IMDA also requested that Leong remove the Facebook post on November 10. Leong complied, but then received a letter from the prime minister’s lawyers demanding a public apology and compensation for damages.
News about the defamation case against Leong alarmed many people. Ghui, a TOC contributor, warned that it could set a dangerous legal precedent:
If Leong is indeed taken to court and found guilty, this sets a dangerous precedent for virtually any entity (ranging from big corporations to rich individuals) with the money to pursue law suits to bully anyone into not speaking up. Is this the kind of society we want to live in whereby money can be used as a tool to subjugate?
Ghui also questioned whether there was a strong enough case for charging Leong with defamation, given that he had complied with the government’s takedown notice and did not write a caption for the original article when he shared it on Facebook.
Some believe that Leong was singled out because of his previous affiliation with a human rights group which had been advocating free speech and other civil liberties in Singapore.
How can a prime minister be offended by someone sharing a Facebook post? If so, thousands of people all over the world should also be sued by him too.
Roy was ordered by the court to apologize to the prime minister and pay the equivalent of USD $106,383 in fines. Roy is now based in Taiwan.
Leong has refrained from commenting on the details of the case, but affirmed his commitment to free speech:
I have fought for fundamental human rights in Singapore for the better part of my adult life in the last 2 decades or so, and the freedom of speech is one of the most fundamental of these human rights.
Facebook refuses to remove post
The IMDA also requested that Facebook remove the States Times Article from its platform, but the company refused to comply. A statement by the company from November 10 said: “Facebook has indicated that they will not accede to IMDA’s request”.
Facebook's refusal prompted Singapore's Ministry of Law to follow up with a statement calling for tougher legislation on “fake news”:
Facebook has declined to take down a post that is clearly false, defamatory and attacks Singapore, using falsehoods. This shows why we need legislation to protect us from deliberate online falsehoods. (…). Facebook does not feel that [falsehood] is sufficient grounds for it to remove the post. FB cannot be relied upon to filter falsehoods or protect Singapore from a false information campaign.
Singapore is among the many countries in the world considering such legislation. In January 2018, the Parliament established a committee to address the problem of “deliberate online falsehoods”, or disinformation on the internet.
Community Action Network, a local rights advocacy group, disagreed with Singapore's government’s order to ISPs to block the websites in connection to the States Times Review case:
While we do not approve of articles which contain falsehoods, it is disproportionate for the government to resort to criminal sanctions for speech which does not incite violence, hate and discrimination.
Criminalising ‘fake news’ will have a chilling effect and further entrench the stigma of engaging in critical political activities and discourse. It will also give those in power more ammunition to silence views they don’t agree with.