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Heavy-handed use of libel suits chills free expression

Hard-hitting investigative journalism is virtually nonexistent in Singapore as the government restricts the work of local and foreign journalists by saddling them with defamation suits – silencing them with the threat or crippling them with exorbitant fines, report IFEX members. Meanwhile, other journalists are simply barred from working in the country.

In October, British freelance journalist Benjamin Bland was refused a work visa and application to cover the recent Asia Pacific Economic Cooperation (APEC) summit, according to the Committee to Protect Journalists (CPJ). He was given no explanation and left Singapore for the U.K. on 14 November.

Bland had lived in Singapore for a year and reported for a wide range of international and local publications, including "The Economist", "Daily Telegraph", "Far Eastern Economic Review", as well as Singapore's "Straits Times". His blog, Asia File, included an entry on official secrecy over death penalty statistics.

In a 30 November article for Index on Censorship, Bland writes: "As well as forcing out foreign correspondents, destroying the careers of local journalists and maintaining ownership over all the domestic newspapers and news broadcasters, the Singapore government is fond of using its stringent libel laws to further restrict the freedom of the press."

Earlier this month, the "Far Eastern Economic Review" was forced to pay S$405,000 (approx. US$290,000) in damages and costs to the Prime Minister, Lee Hsien Loong, and his father, Lee Kuan Yew, for defamation, reports the Southeast Asian Press Alliance (SEAPA). The suit was in response to a 2006 article based on an interview with an opposition politician.

On 17 November, Dow Jones, which owns the publication, said they disagreed with the ruling but after appealing the decision in Singapore's highest court, they wanted to avoid a costly legal process, reports SEAPA.

The state is intolerant of even mild criticism and self-censorship is pervasive, comments Bland. "The real victims of this repression are not foreign correspondents like myself, who can re-locate, or large news organisations such as Dow Jones, which can afford to bear the costs of an occasional libel suit, but Singaporeans."

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