~by: Braema Mathi / President, MARUAH~
MARUAH is troubled by the recent incidents of politicians threatening defamation lawsuits against internet blogs and forums, and calls on our political and corporate leaders to refrain from using defamation lawsuits against political opponents and critics.
MARUAH recognises that individuals, including public figures, have a right to protect their reputations. However, that right needs to be balanced against the right to free speech.
When political leaders threaten defamation lawsuits against internet blogs and forums, there will invariably be a “chilling effect” on online political discourse. Such actions to protect one’s reputation carries a heavier “footprint” than necessary, and more appropriate responses to defamatory comments are possible, in today’s Web 2.0 world.
We would encourage politicians who believe that they have been defamed, to write to the site owner directly to inform the owner; ask for the comment to be taken down; and request for the publication of the politician’s own statement. We believe that blog and forum owners, including those operating anonymously, would generally respond positively to a polite and cogently-worded request. There is no need to engage lawyers or threaten lawsuits to rebut defamatory comments.
MARUAH urges politicians, who seek to build a better Singapore for Singaporeans, to step back and take a broader big-picture perspective. It is incumbent on politicians to refrain from unnecessarily restricting the overall space for political speech in Singapore.
In any case, history demonstrates the poor record of defamation lawsuits in quelling rumours and speculation. TR Emeritus apologised to the Prime Minister over comments that were first made a decade ago, despite these comments having been the subject of repeated defamation lawsuits. These past lawsuits have clearly not been effective in eliminating the speculations.
MARUAH does not condone the publication of defamatory statements. This is especially so, if it is done as part of an organised, deliberate campaign to destroy the reputation of a public figure.
But just as society has a responsibility to protect the reputations of individuals against illegitimate attack, society should also protect the freedom of expression. And when or if a politician has a valid cause of action, he/she, as a leader of Singapore, also has a moral obligation to avoid unnecessarily limiting freedom of speech to clear his/her good name.
We urge that this letter be taken in the spirit that it is written as we mature as a society and walk this fine balance between rights and responsibilities.
MARUAH is a human rights NGO based in Singapore.
"Maruah" means "dignity" in Malay, Singapore'snational language. Human rights is fundamentally about maintaining, restoringand reclaiming one's dignity, and MARUAH strives to achieve this by working onnational and regional human rights issues. MARUAH is also the Singapore focalpoint of the Working Group for an ASEAN Human Rights Mechanism, which is officially recognised in the ASEAN Charter as an entity associated with ASEAN.