1 May 2006

Another Defamation Suit

From Amnesty International

Singapore: Update on Dr Chee Soon Juan -- another defamation suit
April 30, 2006

Within days of Singapore's general election on May 6, defamation writs have been served on Dr Chee Soon Juan, Secretary General of the small opposition Singapore Democratic Party (SDP). and seven members of the party's Executive by former prime minister Lee Kuan Yew and his son, Prime Minister Lee Hsien Loong.

The writs were served after Dr Chee and others refused to apologise for an SDP newspaper article that the plaintiffs claim linked a scandal at the National Kidney Foundation, Singapore's largest charity, to ruling People's Action Party governance. Minister Mentor and the Prime Minister claim that the photographs and articles in The New Democrat were calculated to gain political mileage, disparage the two ministers and impugn their character and integrity.

The High Court gave permission to sue Dr Chee once again, although he is bankrupt. The newpaper's printer and at least three SDP members made the required apology and are not being sued. The SDP's defence lawyer, M Ravi, says they will file their defences in court within 21 days. Since joining the SDP some 12 years ago, Dr Chee has been fired from his university position, charged under various restrictive laws, imprisoned several times, made bankrupt and barred from seeking election.

Opposition parties are expressing concern about the tightening of restrictions on their pre-election campaigning: Dr Chee is not allowed, as a bankrupt, to seek election, reports that he is constantly followed, watched and threatened by the police, and has not been allowed to make any public speeches. Political discussions over the Internet (such as through the use of podcasts) are banned. Opposition leaders speak of the "fear factor" among voters as to possible political or financial repercussions (such as negative decisions on government upgrading of their homes) if they support any but the ruling People's Action Party. Yet, for the first time in many years, opposition parties are running candidates in 47 constituencies -- over half the total. Dr Chee vows to press for democracy, transparency, freedom of expression and media openness. Restrictions on freedom of expression have been widely criticised internationally, including by Lawyers Rights Watch Canada, Reporters Without Borders and US financier George Soros, as well as by Amnesty International.

Amnesty International has in recent years monitored and acted upon a number of defamation suits against opponents of the government, has sent trial observers and issued critical statements. The organization states that the Singaporean government has a history of using civil defamation suits to stifle political opposition. Such defamation suits place unreasonable restrictions on the right of Singaporeans to peacefully express their opinions and to participate freely in public life. The pattern of politically-motivated defamation suits has served to maintain a climate of political intimidation and self-censorship, which deters the expression of views different from those of the ruling PAP. Amnesty International believes that the application of civil defamation suits against government critics has been disproportionate and has undermined the requisite balance between the right to protection of reputation and the right to free speech.

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