Melanie Kirkpatrick ’73, a deputy editor of The Wall Street Journal’s editorial page and a member of its editorial board, was found in contempt of court by Singapore High Court Justice Tay Yong Kwang on March 19. Kirkpatrick was also fined 10,000 Singapore dollars, or roughly $6,550.
“My first reaction [upon hearing of the ruling] was to roll my eyes and think, ‘Here we go again,’ ” Kirkpatrick said in an e-mail to The Daily Princetonian. “Whenever we publish anything on Singapore, we take a risk that we’ll be sued.”
The repercussions could have proven to be even more serious, Kirkpatrick noted.
“People go to jail in Singapore for this offense — so I was worried about that possibility,” she explained. “If I had received a jail sentence, I would not have gone to Singapore to serve it, and there’s no way the U.S. would have extradited me, but it could have impeded my travel elsewhere.”
The Dow Jones Publishing Company, which publishes the Journal, was also found in contempt of court by the High Court last November after the paper printed two contentious editorials and one controversial letter to the editor in The Wall Street Journal Asia.
The first editorial concerned a defamation case in which former Singapore prime minister Lee Kuan Yew won against a political rival. The second focused on statements about Singapore courts made by an “international legal organization,” and the letter to the editor was a response from the Singapore government, according to a Journal article.
Despite the previous action taken against the publishing company, the High Court insisted on taking further action against Kirkpatrick as well.
In her capacity as a deputy editor, Kirkpatrick is responsible for the opinion pages in the Journal’s international editions, such as The Wall Street Journal Asia, The Wall Street Journal Europe and the Far Eastern Economic Review. Kirkpatrick said she first went to Asia in 1974 as a Princeton in Asia fellow. She started working at Time-Life Books in Tokyo, staying in Asia for 10 years.
The Dow Jones Publishing Company explained in a statement that it “remains extremely disappointed with the Court’s ruling against the company in November.”
“It is regrettable that although the Court already imposed a fine against Dow Jones, the Attorney General [of Singapore] still chose to pursue additional contempt charges,” the company added.
These events continue the Singapore government’s tradition of stifling freedom of the press, Kirkpatrick said.
“Singapore has a long history of suing the foreign press — usually [in] defamation cases or, like this one, contempt cases,” she explained.
Ironically, the pattern began with Kirkpatrick herself.
“It started in 1985, with a contempt case against the Asian Journal, and me, over an editorial I wrote about the first opposition member of Parliament,” she said. ”Since then, virtually every foreign publication that circulates in Singapore has faced legal action or the threat of legal action from the government or government officials.”
Kirkpatrick said the 1985 incident made her a “better and more responsible journalist.”
“It also focused my attention on how influential our editorial page is world-wide,” she explained. “In this case, an editorial written by a young journalist got a Prime Minister upset enough to sue us and denounce me.”
Groups like Human Rights Watch (HRW), according to the Fox News Channel, have previously spoken out against Singapore’s constraints on free press, urging the country’s government to stop taking legal action against publications. HRW did not respond to a request for comment.
Though the publishing company paid the fine levied against Kirkpatrick, she explained that the penalty is merely “an unfortunate price of doing business in Singapore.”
“Dow Jones, to its immense credit, fights these cases even though we assume we’ll lose,” she added. “Other publications settle out of court, not wanting to go to the expense or trouble of litigation.”
She added that she believed the “biggest losers” in these cases were the Singaporean people, who “have a hard time getting complete information and a range of views other than those the government wants them to hear.”
The company statement explained, “Kirkpatrick agreed not to reargue the Court’s previous interpretation of the publications in order to resolve this matter in its entirety. But neither Ms. Kirkpatrick nor Dow Jones agrees with the substance of the charges or the contempt judgment.”
Despite the financial penalties, Kirkpatrick and the Dow Jones Publishing Company are determined not to allow their legal issues influence the integrity of their journalism. When asked whether the recent charge would affect what she publishes in the future or how she edits, Kirkpatrick responded, “No and no … We won’t pull punches because some government threatens us.”
See my post here for Dow Jones’ statement and other links to relevent articles.