“The PM is using the archaic and repressive law of criminal defamation and new inventions like POFMA to silence critics”, says Reform Party chief Kenneth Jeyaretnam

Prime Minister Lee Hsien Loong is using the Attorney General to “dust off an archaic law and use it against another relatively insignificant opponent”, said Reform Party leader and blogger Ken Jeyaretnam.

In an article on his blog titled “An Archaic and Repressive Law Corruptly Misused” published on 1 November, Mr Jeyaretnam noted that the government has wielded the Protection from Online Falsehoods and Manipulation Act (POFMA) to “intimidate critics” from challenging the Government’s version of the truth, even when the state refuses to make public data that might dispute the alleged falsehood.

“It was even corruptly deployed to prevent speculation about the PM’s wife’s salary, after a Taiwanese newsite alleged that she was paid $100 million a year, despite Lawrence Wong having said in Parliament that as Temasek was a private company, what it paid Ho Ching was a private matter,” added Mr Jeyaretnam.

He went on to point out the use of colonial era sedition laws to shut down independent media like The Real Singapore, which was critical of the government.

The most recent example, noted the blogger, is the prosecution of The Online Citizen (TOC) editor Terry Xu and citizen Daniel De Costa for criminal defamation. The trial began this week.

“Xu published an article purporting to come from another person whose email was used allegedly without permission, a distasteful expedient De Costa was presumably driven to by fear of prosecution under Singapore’s repressive law,” he wrote.

The sentence in the article which the PM found issue with alleged that there is “corruption at the highest echelons”. Mr Jeyaretnam noted that the AG is arguing that this refers to the Cabinet.

However, he counters, “This is not at all clear to me and surely not to any reasonable observer, the hypothetical “man on the Clapham omnibus” or in Singapore’s case, the person on the North-South line.”

He went on to point out that there have been several corruption cases involving senior civil servants as well as prosecution by the United States of several employees of Temasek-controlled companies like Keppel Corp and Sembawang Marine for corruption.

Mr Jeyaretnam also noted that the allegedly defamatory sentence does not specify any person. He explained, “…therefore, following the precedent established by Rex v Orme and Nutt, ‘where a writing … inveighs against mankind in general, or against a particular order of men, as for instance, men of the gown, this is no libel, but it must descend to particulars and individuals to make it libel’.”

Arguing that the criminal defamation law in Singapore-much like Section 377A which criminalises homosexuality-has been “abolished or reformed” both by the UK and most of its former colonies, Mr Jeyaretnam asserts, “they have no place in a democracy”.

He goes on to argue that even the United Nations and the Organisation for Security and Cooperation in Europe have recognised the thread that criminal defamation laws posed and have recommended it be abolished.

Quoting the organisation Article 19:

“For example, the OSCE Parliamentary Assembly has called for the abolition of all laws that provide criminal penalties for the defamation of public figures or which penalise defamation of the state or state organs,” he quoted from the organisation called Article 19.

“The UN, OSCE and OAS Special Mandates have gone even further, stating: “Criminal defamation is not a justifiable restriction on freedom of expression; all criminal defamation laws should be abolished and replaced, where necessary, with appropriate civil defamation laws.”

Article 19 also quotes from a ruling in the European Court of Human Rights which states, “[T]he dominant position which the Government occupies makes it necessary for it to display restraint in resorting to criminal proceedings, particularly where other means are available for replying to the unjustified attacks and criticisms of its adversaries or the media.”

The blogger points out that the English courts have taken up similar positions in their rulings that “government bodies do not have the right to sue for defamation, though individual officers can sue.”

Relating this back to the current case in Singapore, Mr Jeyaretnam notes that the Cabinet is the government and should therefore not be able to sue for defamation in civil court.

As for criminal defamation, it is not an offence in the UK nor in the overwhelming majority of democratic nations. In countries where those laws still exists, Article 19 outlines safeguards that should apply.

These include:

  • Public authorities, including police and public prosecutors, should take no part in the initiation or prosecution of criminal defamation cases, regardless of the status of the party claiming to have been defamed, even if he or she is a senior public official;
  • Prison sentences, suspended prison sentences, suspension of the right to express oneself through any particular form of media, or to practise journalism or any other profession, excessive fines and other harsh criminal penalties should never be available as a sanction for breach of defamation laws, no matter how egregious or blatant the defamatory statement.

Mr Jeyaretnam says that the prosecution of Mr Xu and Mr De Costa violates these two points, stating, “The coercive machinery of the state is being used to silence critics of the Government.”

He went on, “Far from dispelling allegations of corruption this use of the AG for private ends by the PM and his Cabinet is inherently corrupt. The PM is using the archaic and repressive law of criminal defamation and new inventions like POFMA to silence critics.”

“If by doing so he is able to continue in office drawing at least $2.2 million p.a. while his wife, whom he appointed as head of Temasek, continues to be paid a secret salary that the Government has failed to deny could be as much as $100 million p.a., then he has abused state power for his own personal profit.”

He ended by repeating a quote attributed to English philosopher John Lock which says, “When Political Power Is Used for Private Gain, Tyranny Prevails”

“This remains even more true today than it did when he was alive,” said Mr Jeyaretnam.

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