LAST month, on the same day The New York Times praised Google for standing up to censorship in China, a sister newspaper, The International Herald Tribune, apologized to Singapore’s rulers and agreed to pay damages because it broke a 1994 legal agreement and referred to them in a way they did not like.
The rulers had sued for defamation 16 years ago, saying a Herald Tribune Op-Ed column had implied that they got their jobs through nepotism. The paper wound up paying $678,000 and promising not to do it again. But in February, it named Lee Kuan Yew, the founding prime minister, and his son, Lee Hsien Loong, the prime minister now, in an Op-Ed article about Asian political dynasties.
After the Lees objected, the paper said its language “may have been understood by readers to infer that the younger Mr. Lee did not achieve his position through merit. We wish to state clearly that this inference was not intended.” The Herald Tribune, wholly owned by The New York Times Company, apologized for “any distress or embarrassment” suffered by the Lees. The statement was published in the paper and on the Web site it shares with The Times.
Some readers were astonished that a news organization with a long history of standing up for First Amendment values would appear to bow obsequiously to an authoritarian regime that makes no secret of its determination to cow critics, including Western news organizations, through aggressive libel actions. Singapore’s leaders use a local court system in which, according to Stuart Karle, a former general counsel of The Wall Street Journal, they have never lost a libel suit.
The notion that it could be defamatory to call a political family a dynasty seems ludicrous in the United States, where The Times has routinely applied the label to the Kennedys, the Bushes and the Clintons. But Singapore is a different story.
Lee Kuan Yew once testified, according to The Times, that he designed the draconian press laws to make sure that “journalists will not appear to be all-wise, all-powerful, omnipotent figures.” Four years ago, The Times quoted his son as saying, “If you don’t have the law of defamation, you would be like America, where people say terrible things about the president and it can’t be proved.”
Steven Brostoff of Arlington, Va., wondered whether The Times had other agreements like the one with the Lees, and asked, “What conclusions should we draw about how news coverage from these countries is slanted?” Zeb Raft of the University of Alberta, Edmonton, asked if The Times was admitting that certain world leaders “deserve to be treated with deference. This is the implication of the apology.”
George Freeman, a Times Company lawyer, said the 1994 agreement was the only one he knew about and that it applied only to The Herald Tribune. Bill Keller, the executive editor of The Times, said, “Nobody in this company has ever told me what our reporters can write — or not write — about Singapore.” He said the Times newsroom has no agreements with any government about what can be reported. “We don’t work that way.”
Andrew Rosenthal, the editor of the editorial page, said, “If we have something that needs to be said on the editorial or Op-Ed pages, on any subject, we will say it, clearly and honestly.”
That is what the late William Safire did on the Op-Ed page in 2002, when he criticized Bloomberg News for “kowtowing to the Lee family” by apologizing for an article about the elevation of the younger Lee’s wife to run a state-owned investment company. Bloomberg, he said, had “just demeaned itself and undermined the cause of a free online press.”
Safire wrote that he took “loud exception” in 1994 when The Herald Tribune, then owned jointly by the Times Company and The Washington Post Company, “cravenly caved” over an article by Philip Bowring — the same Hong Kong-based columnist who sparked last month’s dust-up. “I doubt such a sellout of principle will happen again.”
Richard Simmons was the president of The Herald Tribune in 1994 and authorized the agreement that was broken last month — an “undertaking” by the company’s lawyers to prevent a repetition of the language that offended the Lees. “We had, in my view, no choice,” he said. “What the American media absolutely refuse to recognize is Singapore operates on a different set of legal rules than does the United States.” He said Western news organizations can accept the legal system there or leave.
For The Herald Tribune and all the other news organizations that have paid damages to Singapore’s rulers (The Wall Street Journal, The Economist, Bloomberg) or had their circulation limited there (Time, The Asian Wall Street Journal, The Economist), the choice has been to stay.
Singapore is tiny, with a population of around five million, but it has outsized economic power as a financial hub, making it an important source of news. For The Herald Tribune, the economic stakes are large: more than 10 percent of its Asian circulation is in Singapore. It prints papers there that are distributed throughout the region. It sells advertising to companies throughout Asia that want to reach readers in Singapore.
“If you want to be a global paper, it has lots of banks, lots of commerce, a highly educated, English-speaking population,” said Karle. “It’s hard to turn your back on that.”
Faced with this predicament when the Lees objected to the article last month, The Herald Tribune apologized and paid up — $114,000 — before it was even sued. Karle said the paper could have spent a million dollars for a worse result in court: forced to pay higher damages and make a more humiliating apology.
But settling the way it did has its own price. Roby Alampay, the executive director of the Southeast Asian Press Alliance, told Agence France-Presse, “This continuing line of major media organizations too quick to offer contrition and money is a sad sight and a persisting insult on legitimate journalism, fair commentary, free speech and the rights that Singaporeans deserve.”
Safire told The American Journalism Review in 1995 that the world’s free press should unite and pull out of Singapore in the face of any new libel action. I think that is what should happen too, but it never has.
That leaves the Times Company with its own choice if another challenge arises. “Singapore is an important market for The International Herald Tribune,” the company told me in a statement. “There are more than 12,000 I.H.T. readers who shouldn’t be deprived of the right to read the paper in print or online. In addition, getting kicked out of Singapore would also make it more difficult for others in the region to get the I.H.T. since we print in Singapore for distribution there and in the neighboring areas.”
Google faced a similar painful dilemma in China. With potentially billions of dollars at risk, it stuck to its principles, and The Times applauded editorially. I think Google set an example for everyone who believes in the free flow of information.