Two defamation lawsuits were filed recently by the prime ministers of Malaysia and Singapore against online media regarding the publication of articles criticising their roles as leaders in their respective countries.
Even though these lawsuits did not use existing criminal defamation laws in both countries, the cases represent blatant actions by the state to suppress freedom of expression and to silence critics.
Political performance feedback
Malaysian Prime Minister Najib Abdul Razak initiated legal action against Malaysiakini for publishing allegedly defamatory readers’ comments on two articles (namely ‘A case of the PM reaping what he sows’and ‘How much will Najib spend to keep Terengganu?’) that appeared in the “YourSay” section of the online news website.
The comments raised faulted Najib’s leadership and his party UMNO’s alleged racial and religious biases for their declining influence over Malaysian politics.
The lawsuit emphasized the role of Malaysiakini in selecting the comments from among many submitted by readers to earlier articles.
Najib is suing for damages, retraction of the articles, an official apology and a pledge not to publish similar content in the future.
Malaysiakini editors Steven Gan and Fathi Aris Omar, who are respondents to the suit filed by Najib, intend to fight the lawsuit in court.
Gan also said that they offered Najib the ‘right of reply’ to refute the comments, but the prime minister refused.
The lawsuit is the latest episode in the continuing saga of harassment and intimidation by the state against Malaysiakini. Previously, the online website won a case filed against the interior ministry which denied a permit to publish to the popular online news website.
Questions on the pension fund
In Singapore, social-political blogger Roy Ngerng received on 18 May a demand letter accusing him of defaming PM Lee Hsien Loong for a blogpost titled: “Where your CPF money is going: Learning from the City Harvest trial”, which appeared in his blog The Heart Truths.
In the article, Ngerng drew a comparison of how the flow of CPF monies into state investment funds is similar with a high-profile fraud case involving the local church leaders accused of criminal breach of trust in moving church funds to various companies. Among the state-owned corporations that draw from CPF’s funds is the Government of Singapore Investment Corporation (GIC), which is chaired by Lee.
Lee’s lawyers accused Ngerng of committing libel by alleging that the prime minister is guilty of “criminal misappropriation” of the monies paid by Singaporeans to the Central Provident Fund (CPF), the country’s national pension fund.
Like Najib, Lee’s lawsuit demanded that Ngerng remove the blogpost, issue a public apology, and compensate the Prime Minister for damages and legal fees.
Ngerng has complied with the demands by issuing an apology and offering a 5,000 SGD compensation, which Lee’s lawyers have rejected, causing the lawsuit to move forward.
On 10 June, Ngerng was fired by his employer for “conduct incompatible with the values and standards expected of employees, and for misusing working time, hospital computers and facilities for personal pursuits”.
Private right vs public interest
While the lawyers of Messrs Lee and Najib have argued that it is well within their clients’ individual rights as private persons to sue for damage to their reputations caused by the articles, the subjects of the controversial articles are within the realm of public interest as related to their jobs as politicians and heads of public institutions.
As highlighted in the summons, Malaysiakini commentators were pointing to some actions of Najib as prime minister and head of the United Malays National Organization (UMNO). The selection of comments for publication is within the editorial prerogatives of Malaysiakini to either reflect the general tone of comments or select the most meaningful/relevant ones to the story.
Ngerng, on the other hand, raises legitimate questions to underline his main question and advocacy of why Singapore’s pension benefits for citizens are so poor. In the controversial blogpost, he contrasted this issue with the fact of the CPF and GIC being among the richest entities in their respective classes of public funds across the globe.
At the core of these actions by the commentators of Malaysiakini and Roy Ngerng are expressions of citizens and their rights to comment of the performance of public officials and raise questions on the operations of public institutions.
The charges in the form of a civil lawsuit does not hide the reality that these are being initiated by the heads of state, and reflect political policy. Why Najib and Lee chose to threaten these commentators—and not explain or refute the allegations as a show of statesmanship, perhaps—only fuels this suspicion.
These forms of socio-political expression represent a relatively new channel of public expression not previously available in Malaysia and Singapore before the advent of online media, given the tightly controlled mainstream media in these countries through repressive publishing laws.
Moreover, the lawsuits the prime ministers are in effect targeting the online media in general, sending a message to other bloggers and commentators that such manners of commentary will not be tolerated.
The lawsuit against Malaysiakini is but the latest episode in an unending series of acts of harassment and intimidation by the state since 2003, including lawsuits, police raids, and attempted closures. In the previous episode, the online website last year won a case filed against the interior ministry which arbitrarily denied a permit to publish to the popular online news website.
In Singapore, threats of lawsuits against bloggers have been a common form of responses to the critical public commentary on the government. Government bodies have also been unsuccessfully trying to impose rules and codes of ethics against online media, which falls outside the jurisdiction of mainstream media control.
Absence of accountability
Both Malaysia and Singapore are among the few remaining holdout states that have not ratified the International Convention on Civil and Political Rights (ICCPR). Thus, their accountability in international forums for abuses and violations of press freedom and freedom of expression—such as these lawsuits–will be limited, and will depend on existing national mechanisms.
Without any available recourse to international mechanisms, these leaders can just act as bullies to their people to deflect criticism and accountability, relying on state institutions firmly in the control of their respective parties that have been in power since independence.