By John Burton in Singapore
Published: May 8 2005 17:13 | Last updated: May 8 2005 17:13
A threatened libel suit against a blogger by a Singapore government agency has raised concerns among international press freedom groups that the city-state might be cracking down against dissent on the internet.
A*Star, the city-state's science and technology agency, has set a deadline of Monday for a student who criticised its scholarship system and policies on his web log to make an "unreserved and sincere apology" or else be sued in what would be one of the first such cases in Asia against a blogger.
Blogging and libel laws are also emerging as a key legal issue in the US and Europe.
"Such intimidation could make the country's blogs as timid and obedient as the traditional media," said Paris-based Reporters without Borders, which last year placed Singapore at the bottom of developed countries on press freedom.
Chen Jiahao, a former government scholarship student studying chemical physics at the University of Illinois at Urbana-Champaign, has already shut down his blog and apologised to A*Star and its head, Philip Yeo, for "having hosted or made remarks that Mr Yeo felt were defamatory to him and the agency that he leads".
But A*Star said the apology was unsatisfactory since Mr Chen's blog contained "untrue and serious accusations against A*Star, its officers and other parties, which went way beyond fair comment".
International press freedom groups are watching the case since blogs could challenge the Singapore government's tight media controls.
"We are troubled that the government has raised the spectre of costly legal action to chill commentary on the internet," said the New York-based Committee to Protect Journalists.
Government officials have had a successful record of winning libel suits against foreign and domestic media critics in local courts. Singapore's "defamation laws make it relatively easy for some plaintiffs to win", said the US State Department in its latest human rights report on Singapore.
"Threats of defamation actions often persuaded newspapers and others to apologise and pay damages for perceived slights, a situation that prompted general caution in expressing dissent," the report said.
But A*Star defended its libel threat, saying it had "the responsibility to protect its reputation and also that of Singapore".
The government is investigating another blog by a top government scholarship student in the US after he allegedly made racial slurs against Singapore's Indian and Malay minorities. No action has yet been announced in that case.
Blogging has taken on more importance in Singapore as the government recently said it wants to encourage debate. "We want the people to be involved, to discuss, to understand and to have a view," said Lee Hsien Loong, the prime minister, last week