As expected, a three-judge appellate panel has upheld a ruling that the Far Eastern Economic Review defamed Prime Minister Lee Hsien Loong and his father, former Prime Minister Lee Kuan Yew, in a 2006 interview with Chee Soon Juan, the long-suffering secretary-general of the opposition Singapore Democratic Party.
The Lees sued editor Hugo Restall and Review Publishing Co. over the article, which described Chee’s marathon battles with the Lees and the ruling People’s Action Party, and a series of court cases, all won by the government, that left Chee destitute. It quoted him as saying, among other things, that the Singapore government would never change course until the elder Lee was dead.
In addition to suing the publication and editor Restall, the government also later banned the Review, which at that time had more than 1,000 subscribers in Singapore, because the magazine hadn’t appointed a legal representative or paid a $126,150 security bond — new requirements that at the time were unrelated to the lawsuit, but that the Review called unjustified.
In the 204-page concurrence by Chief Justice Chan Sek Keong, Appellate Justice Andrew Pheng Boon Keong and Judge Judith Prakash, the three agreed with the Singapore High Court’s ruling last September that the two had been defamed, dismissing the appeals and awarding costs “and the usual consequential orders” to the Lees. Decisions by the Court of Appeal are final.
In all, it was a routine judgment in favor of the Lees, who have never lost a libel case in their own courts. Being charged in the Singapore courts is tantamount to being convicted. The government or the Lee family have filed defamation or contempt charges against virtually every major publication in Asia, including the International Herald Tribune, the Financial Times, Time Magazine, the Economist, the now-defunct AsiaWeek and any other publication that refuses to toe the Lee line.
The bigger question, however, is what becomes of the lawsuit. Two weeks ago, News Corp., controlled by Rupert Murdoch, announced it was closing the 63-year-old FEER, once the leading regional magazine in Asia, in December. The charges against the magazine, which was converted to a monthly publication of analysis and comment five years ago, were considered a test of News Corp’s nerve. It is a news organization that in the past has sought to steer clear of controversies with governments. The announcement that the magazine would close was in fact seen by skeptics as a maneuver by Murdoch to nullify the lawsuit or as a quiet capitulation to Lee Kuan Yew, who staged a long series of lawsuits and other battles with the magazine and particularly with its onetime editor, the late Derek Davies. Although the Review no longer has assets in Singapore, its parent company, Dow Jones Co. does.
In an abbreviated e-mail, Restall said the closure would not affect the suit. “The suit goes on regardless,” he replied. To the suggestion that Murdoch might have closed the magazine in deference to the Lees, he said: “That doesn’t make any sense.”
In announcing the closure, Dow Jones said “continued losses in advertising revenue and readers are now unsustainable.” Killing off FEER, the company said, would allow “opinion and commentary resources from Asia” to expand across all Dow Jones properties. Restall, the company said, would keep his job on the editorial board of the Wall Street Journal and the staff would be offered jobs elsewhere in the company.
As for the FEER brand itself, a spokesman said that “We may at some point revisit it, but not likely any point in the near future.” Circulation, the spokesman said, had shrunk to about 20,000 from its heyday of 90,000-100,000. At one point, the magazine had the biggest staff of correspondents of any news magazine in Asia.
The media watchdog organization Reporters Without Borders ranks Singapore 140th out of 167 countries surveyed in terms of freedom of the press. The country has been kicking foreign journalists out for writing critical articles about the republic since the early 1970s.