Website of the Media Legal Defence Initiative.

Legal assistance for online media more critical today

Website of the Media Legal Defence Initiative.
Website of the Media Legal Defence Initiative.

By Ghui

With the recent announcements of the electoral boundaries and the impending general elections looming, it is a forgone conclusion that blog activity and online discussions will spike. In tandem with growing public perception that state owned media outlets are the government’s mouthpieces, the Internet is fast becoming the forum du jour for political debates and information dissemination.

The ever growing reach of the World Wide Web has not only attracted greater participants but also increased scrutiny from the powers be. Roy Ngerng, Amos Yee, Alex Au and The Real Singapore are but a few examples of bloggers and websites who have felt the full weight of the law to silence them.

ravi and roy
Roy Ngerng and his earlier defence team.

The common concern among these cases was not what they said or did not say, but that laws not directly connected to online publications have been used (or misused) as de facto gags on matters that could rightly constitute matters of public interest.

Singapore is of course not the only country that has a history of alleged press suppression but the proliferation of online media makes this issue much bigger than before.

There are many organisations and lobby groups that push for greater press freedoms and protections for journalists. What is perhaps lacking amidst this sea of advocacy agencies is an outfit that deals specifically with the legal defence of those who are involved in the spread of information within the sphere of public interest and who face legal persecution as a result of what they have to say.

In 2008, the Media Legal Defence Initiative (MLDI) was set up to deal with just that.

While not many in Singapore may have heard of the MLDI, its work has been impactful and prolific. Active in 49 countries within Asia, Africa, central and eastern Europe and a smattering of the Middle East with 123 current cases and a 76% success rate, the MLDI is the quintessential organisation for our present times of political change and Internet power.

Peter Low Alex Au Choo ZX Christine Low
Alex Au and lawyers.

Being cognisant with the constantly evolving nature of the Internet, the MLDI has a reasonably fluid agenda. They are mandated to provide assistance to anyone or any organisation within the media who are facing legal persecution for speaking out on public interest issues and who are not involved in propagating hate speech or inciting violence. One does not have to have a specific number of followers before qualifying for their assistance and each case is judged on its merits.

While the MLDI has traditionally worked with journalists and bloggers, it does not rule out aiding others in the media such as performance artists, cartoonists or artists as long as they are engaged in issues of public interests.

The MLDI’s platform has been a much needed resource for many journalists and bloggers who find themselves hampered by legal difficulties which in turn limit their ability to work. This then has the damaging repercussion of restricting the public’s right to information.

Bloggers and the like may have information of profound importance to share but may not necessarily have the resources to hire legal advice the way big news corporations have. They can therefore become easy prey for those in power. This is especially if they are divulging information which although crucial to the public at large may be information that the powers be have an agenda to suppress.

Ai Takagi and Yang Kaiheng with lawyer Choo Zheng Xi (image - CNA)
TRS editors Ai Takagi and Yang Kaiheng with lawyer Choo Zheng Xi (image – CNA)

If a blogger, independent journalist or anyone within the media sphere is facing legal pressure and requires the MLDI’s assistance, he/she/they can contact the MLDI directly via their website. The MLDI works with an international network of lawyers and human rights organisations. They are able to source the most suitable lawyers and raise funds for the requisite legal defence. In jurisdictions where pro bono work is common, the MLDI have recourse to a panel of pro bono lawyers. In countries where pro bono lawyers are not available, the MLDI makes use of local contacts to hire the most suitable lawyers for the case at hand.

While the MLDI does not have a “no go zone” per se, its ability to effectively help depends on the given jurisdiction having some semblance of a stable legal system in the first place. Their ability to assist in areas where there is no legal framework is therefore restricted.

In Singapore, the MLDI’s existence is definitely very relevant. In an atmosphere which many consider press freedom as restrictive and where the state run media is viewed as biased, the prevalence of alternative sources of information is of vital importance in order for civil and political liberties to thrive.

leslie chew make cartoons
Cartoon by Leslie Chew

Yet, many who have tried to speak out against certain public interest topics have been constantly harassed. I understand that the MLDI works with a few lawyers in Singapore and has provided assistance to some Singaporeans including Roy Ngerng in his recent troubles. It has also notably assisted Alan Shadrake when he ran afoul of the authorities in Singapore for his book Once a Jolly Hangman.

Beyond ensuring the sustainability of public interest bloggers, legal assistance has the even greater impact of setting precedents and clarifying the law to create a more favourable environment for free speech.

A recent example would be the Court of Appeal Decision in the Dorsey James Michael case, whereby the court held that a multi factorial approach was required in the determination of whether or not a journalist’s sources ought to be revealed. Most notably in this case, the exposure of corruption and the public interest element of it were judged to be superior – the rule of “there can be no confidence in iniquity” was accepted.

As Singapore’s democratic landscape develops, the right to information and press freedoms must also catch on. As bloggers and journalists continue to do their work, the legal system must be utilised as a system of support, as opposed to a tool of oppression. Easy and affordable access to legal assistance is of paramount importance.