On July 19th, the US Senate passed a bill to shield US journalists, authors, and publishers from “libel tourists” who file suit in countries where they expect to get the most favorable ruling. The Senate approved the measure in a “unanimous consent” voice vote.
The popular legislation headed to the House of Representatives, which was expected to approve it and send the measure to US President Barack Obama to sign into law.
Backers of the bill have cited Singapore as the major country where weak libel safeguards attract lawsuits that unfairly harm US journalists, writers and publishers.
The measure would prevent US federal courts from recognizing or enforcing a foreign judgment for defamation that is inconsistent with the first amendment of the US Constitution and would bar foreign parties in such cases from targeting the US assets of an American author, journalist, or publisher as part of any damages.
Defamation is both a criminal offence and a civil action in Singapore. Singapore’s Defamation Act 1957, which covers defamation from a civil perspective, broadly defines defamation and covers libel and slander. Section 499 of Singapore’s Penal Code makes defamation a criminal offence. It should be noted that Singapore’s Defamation Act provides for very substantial damages to be awarded to ‘vindicate the reputation of the plaintiff’.
Singapore has long used defamation cases to stifle comment, taking major international and Asian newspapers (Asian Wall Street Journal and International Herald Tribune) and weeklies (Far Eastern Economic Review, Asiaweek and The Economist) to court over defamation suits and in some cases has restricted their circulation in Singapore.
In October 2007, the Financial Times avoided a costly law suit by paying unspecified damages and publishing a humiliating apology that accepted its claims of nepotism were groundless. These lawsuits have caused the media to remain silent for fear of extensive and expensive lawsuits and have created an atmosphere of self-censorship amongst journalists where Singapore is involved.
Helen Yeo a Singapore lawyer threatened to sue us for libel over our book, Escape from Paradise. Helen Yeo’s husband, Yeo Cheow Tong, was at that time a Singapore cabinet minister.
The Media Development Authority of Singapore (MDA), was formed to promote the arts in Singapore. Its main function, however, is one of censorship. MDA keeps its list of banned books, websites, etc., confidential. MDA falls under Singapore’s Ministry of Information, Communications and the Arts, headed by Rear-Admiral and Acting Minister Lui Tuck Yew (yes, they have admirals in Singapore).
Escape from Paradise did not appear on any list of banned books, but all twenty-five copies were removed from Singapore’s National Library – save one, which was put on “restricted distribution.” (Sign out a copy, and Singapore has your name.)
In addition, bookstores were warned not to carry the book. The largest Singapore bookstore, Kinokuniya, was warned personally by lawyer from Helen Yeo’s law firm.
There was nothing in our book that defamed Helen Yeo. She was mentioned only in passing regarding the sale of a property. We avoided any mention of irregularities concerning this sale, but the mention of her name was enough for Helen Yeo to have our book banned.
Several days ago, Singapore arrested Alan Shadrake, a British national and author of Once a Jolly Hangman criticizing Singapore’s death penalty. Shadrake, now out on bail, has been charged with criminal defamation, a crime which carries a prison sentence and a heavy fine. Shadrake, 75, could spend the rest of his life in Singapore’s infamous Changi Prison.