18 October 2008
Govt responds to call by US advocacy group to desist from 'using defamation suits to stifle political opposition'
THE Government yesterday gave its position on criticisms levelled against government leaders by opposition politicians, in response to a statement by a New York-based advocacy group, Human Rights Watch (HRW).
The group had called on Singapore's leaders to 'end the practice of using defamation suits to stifle political opposition'. In comments posted on its website yesterday, it highlighted a High Court ruling this week.
HRW noted that the court had awarded Prime Minister Lee Hsien Loong and Minister Mentor Lee Kuan Yew six-figure sums against the Singapore Democratic Party (SDP), its secretary-general Chee Soon Juan and his sister Chee Siok Chin for defamation.
In reply, the Ministry of Information, Communications and the Arts' spokesman noted that in Singapore, opposition politicians have the right to criticise the Government and government leaders.
But, Ms K. Bhavani added, 'that does not entitle them to tell lies or defame'.
'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.
'This is the way to establish the truth, and to keep Singapore's public discourse honest and responsible.''
In reference to the court ruling, Ms Bhavani noted that the Chees and their political party, the SDP, had accused PM Lee and MM Lee of dishonesty, nepotism and corruption, among other things.
They had done it just before a General Election in 2006, she noted in a statement to the media. 'When the two ministers sued, the other members of the SDP central executive committee apologised, but Chee and his sister refused to do so.
'The Chees had every opportunity to justify and prove their allegations in court, but totally failed to do so. Therefore, they have to pay damages commensurate with the seriousness of the defamation and in accordance with the judgment of the court.'
The defamation was committed in articles published in SDP's newsletter, The New Democrat. Nine of its leaders settled earlier with the Lees, apologising and paying them $170,000 each.
That leaves the SDP and the Chee siblings owing the Lees $610,000 in all. The siblings are bankrupt. If the SDP is unable to pay, the 28-year-old party faces the prospect of being wound up.
The possibility was highlighted as well in HRW's statement. It reported its deputy Asia director Elaine Pearsonas saying: 'Using defamation laws to silence peaceful political speech makes a mockery of Singapore's claim to be a model democracy. Opposition criticism of the Government is an essential ingredient of a democratic political system.'
The group urged the Government to 'lift legal restrictions on freedom of expression to bring the country in line with international law'.
In concluding remarks, the HRW said 'the assault on free speech by Singapore's leaders extends to critical foreign publications circulating in Singapore'.
It mentioned several cases, involving among others, the Far Eastern Economic Review and The Wall Street Journal Asia.
Ms Pearson said: 'The history of defamation in Singapore shows a pattern of making people pay dearly for exercising the basic right of peaceful expression.
'Singapore has nothing to fear from a vocal opposition and its people have everything to gain.'