February 22nd, 2012
TREmeritus has posted an apology to the Prime Minister, two days before the deadline his lawyers gave the site to avoid being sued for defamation. The formal apology – carried in the lead article in the site’s “Editorials and News” section with a prominent graphic of a yellow post-it note that says “Sorry!” – reads as follows:
- On or about 16 February 2012, we published on this website, TR Emeritus, an article entitled “PAP-government is full of ironies“ (the “Article”). The Article, and the comments in response to the Article, was available at http://www.tremeritus.com/2012/02/16/pap-government-is-full-of-ironies/.
- We recognise that the Article meant or was understood to mean that Prime Minister Lee Hsien Loong had secured, or was instrumental in securing, the appointment of his wife, Mdm Ho Ching, as the Chief Executive Officer of Temasek Holdings (Private) Limited for nepotistic motives.
- We admit and acknowledge that this allegation is false and completely without foundation. We unreservedly apologise to Prime Minister Lee Hsien Loong for the distress and embarrassment caused to him by this allegation.
- We have removed the Article and the comments in response to the Article and undertake not to make any further allegation to the same or similar effect.
Giving the background to the case, the article also quotes an extract from the lawyers’ letter of 19 February. It cites a passage from the offending 16 February article, which claimed that Koh Boon Hwee, for example, was more qualified than the PM’s wife Ho Ching to head Temasek Holdings. It said that this was just one of “10,001 examples” of cronyism in Singapore. The article, by a Matthew Chua, was taken down the same day as the lawyers’ letter was delivered to TRE’s Singapore-based editor Richard Wan.
It is not known whether TRE acceded to the lawyers’ additional demand that the site reveal to them the identity of Matthew Chua.
In TRE’s article today, the site noted the lawyers’ statement that Ho Ching had been appointed “on merit and through proper process”.
“Additionally, Messer Drew & Napier was kind enough to provide TRE with information pertaining to the appointment of Mdm Ho Ching, which showed that Prime Minister Lee Hsien Loong was not involved in the decision making process. As a matter of fact, Mr Lee was against the idea from the onset,” said the apology, which was signed by Wan on behalf of the website.
“In light of the information made available to TRE, we would like to offer our sincere apology to Prime Minister Lee Hsien Loong.”
The article ends with an appeal to readers not to post libellous material, saying that such posts would be deleted. Comments for the article were closed – an unusual move for a site famed for colourful remarks from anonymous readers.
The apology marks something of a comedown for a site – previously known as Temasek Review – that once took obvious glee in publishing conspiracy theories and creative concoctions against the establishment. For example, in its earlier incarnation, it sparked the flaming of PAP newbie Tin Pei Ling with an article that showed pictures of her posing with a regular-looking guy, suggesting that this was a boyfriend whom she had cruelly dumped in order to pursue a relationship with the senior civil servant whom she eventually married.
Last week, Wan appeared at a forum saying that TRE wanted a new responsible and pro-Singapore image. It was the first time that an editor had come out into the open. He said that this would make it easier for TRE to talk to sources with information that could corroborate the many tip-offs it received. However, this also meant that the authorities now had a flesh-and-blood target to pursue in any legal action, as Wan discovered the hard way on Sunday.
TREmeritus claims a higher viewership rank than the mainstream site, Today Online, which is controlled by Temasek Holdings.
At the talk last week, Wan said that the site would be happy to publish replies when officials felt the site had gotten something wrong. By invoking defamation law instead against the high-profile site, the government has drawn the ire of netizens. The Online Citizen, for example, has urged the government to rethink its use of defamation suits against what it sees as unfounded criticism.
“A better way to respond to defamation in today’s world, is to directly rebut the claims,” it said in an editorial. “While this can be difficult if one is seeking to prove a negative, it is still much more effective than lawsuits and legal letters. Tell your own story, openly, frankly and candidly. An authentic and honest response will always ring true, and people will be able to tell your sincerity for what it is.”
The PM’s action against TRE – and law minister K. Shanmugam’s against Yawning Bread – are being widely seen as a turning point in the government’s management of alternative online media. Apparently cowed by the tidal wave of online dissent that marked last year’s general election, the government has now signalled that it will not hesitate to use old-fashioned weapons against critics that cross Singapore’s legal limits, online as well as offline.
However, this is not in fact the first time that defamation is being threatened against online media. Ten years ago, Muslim site Fateha.com and individual poster Robert Ho were investigated for criminal defamation. The editor of Fateha fled the country, while the case against Ho was dropped because he was found to be of unsound mind.
Defamation appears in both civil and criminal law in Singapore. While the use of civil defamation suits in Singapore has been controversial, such laws exist everywhere. In contrast, treating defamation as a criminal matter is increasingly regarded internationally as too extreme a restriction on freedom of expression. Significantly, although book author Alan Shadrake was initially charged with criminal defamation, this was never pursued. Therefore, students of media law might see the latest action against TRE as another indication that criminal defamation has come to be regarded by the government as obsolete and internationally unacceptable, even though it remains in the books.