By John Ruwitch
The Far Eastern Economic Review will vigorously fight a defamation suit brought against it by Singapore's prime minister and his father and regrets the city-state's decision to ban the magazine, its editors said on Friday.
Prime Minister Lee Hsien Loong and former premier Lee Kuan Yew filed the libel suit against Hong Kong-based Review Publishing Company Ltd. and FEER editor Hugo Restall on August 22 over an article published in July on opposition politician Chee Soon Juan.
"We are planning to defend the defamation lawsuits vigorously and look forward to having our day in court in Singapore," Restall told a news conference in Hong Kong.
'Singapore's Martyr: Chee Soon Juan'
"We believe that the original article was not defamatory in any way and could not be read by any reasonable reader of the Review as alleging the things that Mr Lee Kuan Yew and Lee Hsien Loong claimed," Restall said.
The article that sparked the lawsuit, entitled "Singapore's Martyr: Chee Soon Juan", criticised the government's handling of a pay-and-perks scandal at the country's largest charity. The magazine also quoted Chee attacking the Lees.
Restall said Chee never said he thought any particular member of the Singaporean government was corrupt.
"He never said that and I certainly didn't write that, and I don't believe that," Restall said. "I think it's just ridiculous to read the article in that way. It's preposterous."
Singapore has for decades taken a tough stance on foreign media when they report on local politics. International media organisations have been banned, slapped with defamation suits or seen their circulations restricted when they published articles deemed offensive by the government.
'Barometer of Asian Development'
The suit is the latest in a series brought by Singapore's leaders against foreign media and opposition politicians.
The Review celebrates its 60th anniversary in 2005 and on Friday unveiled a new "Barometer of Asian Development", scoring 12 countries in the region over the past five years on a variety of data such as education, human mobility, capital access, creative rights, gender equality and labour flexibility.
China and Thailand were tied at the top, with Singapore a close second.
"We're trying to be very fair to Singapore, and I think the index reflects that we are not seeking to criticise them unfairly or trying to only emphasise the negative," Restall said.
Paul Gigot, editor of the editorial page of the Wall Street Journal, which with Review Publishing is owned by Dow Jones & Co., said the government's decision to ban the Review in September did a disservice to Singaporeans.
"We really regret that decision," he said.
The government said it banned the sale of FEER, which has about 1 000 subscribers there, because it failed to comply with its press regulations.
Singapore's leaders have won damages in the past from media groups, including the Economist, the International Herald Tribune, Bloomberg, and FinanceAsia - as well as the Far Eastern Economic Review when it was published as a weekly news magazine.
In November 1989, a Singapore court found FEER guilty of libelling then-Prime Minister Lee Kuan Yew and ordered it to pay 230 000 Singaporean dollars in damages.
At the time, Justice LP Thean said Lee was entitled to aggravated damages against the magazine, owned by Dow Jones & Co., because of "express malice" by the defendants and the conduct of their lawyer Geoffrey Robertson during the trial.
The case stemmed from an article published in 1987 dealing with the arrests that year of 22 people, mostly lay church workers, for alleged involvement in a Marxist plot to subvert the government.
Media watchdog Reporters Without Borders, which ranks Singapore 140th out of 167 countries for press freedom, slammed the government's decision in August to issue restrictions on five foreign publications, including FEER.
The government ordered Time, Newsweek, the Financial Times and the International Herald Tribune to post bonds of 200 000 Singaporean dollars and appoint representatives in Singapore. - Reuters
FEER's Editor's Letter in full
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