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Defamation Laws and Control of the Media as a Tool for Repression


Yesterday a letter of mine was published in the Wall Street Journal.  This was prompted by  two items, firstly an article WSJ published on the recent action taken against bloggers .

http://blogs.wsj.com/searealtime/2012/03/01/debate-over-blog-limits-intensifies-in-singapore/ original WSJ article is here.

The second prompt for my letter was a memory of something the PM said during the election period. At the time I was too busy to deal with it. The link to the MSM article quoting the PM is here (http://www.channelnewsasia.com/stories/singaporelocalnews/view/1125213/1/.html).

The PM  said  “in the heat of an election campaign…you will find unwise speeches being made, which is why sometimes, after elections, you’ve got court cases to deal with”

Most of us read something more into this remark and the link between our courts and freedom of speech was brought back into play.

The other side of the coin of the use of defamation laws to silence diversity of opinion is the control of mainstream media by the state to constantly put out spin which cannot be challenged anywhere other than on the web.

The mainstream media can also exercise complete control by a blackout on organisations or individuals whose views challenge their own or interfere with the myth of homogeneity that they wish to propagate. It is relevant here that my letter was published in the WSJ because the MSM fails to print any of my letters or even issue clarifications of basic factual errors that they have made. If on the other hand I made these errors I would be threatened with defamation suits.

Since the early days of the election period there has been a very noticeable blackout on mention of my name and the activities of the Reform Party unless it reflects us in a negative light. This blackout has extended across all media including print, radio and TV and even state-controlled university forums. For example a lot of people wondered why I had not appeared on the CNA televised debate just before the elections, as though I had any choice in the matter!  In fact I remonstrated and complained very strongly to CNA to no avail.

This is another  very successful tool that the PAP employ. The government demands a right of reply in all media including international, a right which it denies to its own citizens in our domestic media.

This two-pronged attack of the fear of defamation suits on the one hand and complete control of media on the other results in a seamless homogeneity. This gives the appearance that as a nation we are all of one mind, as though the PAP and Singapore are one and the same thing.

As an economist I cannot stress too much that lack of a free market place of ideas will only lead to a lack of prosperity in the longer term. We are one of the few nations in this world where the older generation has worked itself to the bone to ensure that the younger generation has less. This is why you will see throughout this blog that even though I am writing as an economist I consistently bring up these issues of freedom.

Even in China they seem to have a firmer grasp of the importance of freedom than we do. For example when the authorities tried to suppress dissident artist Ai Wei through a tax bill, thousands of ordinary people sent in donations and he was able to pay off the fines thereby avoiding prison.

In my letter to the WSJ I said there are small signs that we are learning to sidestep the repression. To quote the letter,

Also encouraging is the way people came forward to donate money to pay off Democratic Party Secretary General Chee Soon Juan’s fine and keep him out of jail during the election. This gives some small hope that the tactics the People’s Action Party leaders employed in the past will no longer work.”

I say, ‘some small hope’  because our gestures are still too small and wound up in the personalities involved.  (I must digress here and say that I have always been grateful to James Gomez and the fund he organised in support of my father and I am not belittling that) We need to see  grander personality-free gestures which support the basic underlying principles of freedom involved. This is also where the calls for  ‘Unity’ are falling short so far.

I wrote about that underlying principle of democracy last year when I wrote an article entitled “Why I paid good money to keep my political opponent out of jail” [http://sonofadud.com/2011/02/09/42/]. The opinion expressed in that article followed the spirit of the quote often incorrectly credited to Voltaire,

 “I disapprove of what you say, but I will defend to the death your right to say it.”

Of Course CSJ was not my opponent so much as my colleague but I hope you’ll allow for poetic license in my desire to support the  spirit of Voltaire.

The point is that we need to protect the basic principles, to fight for them, and to prevent their erosion. So whether we agree with Alex or hate his blog, we need to question why Alex was made an example of and not Scroobal (sic) who still evades detection.

(Many rumours surround Scroobal but the strongest suggest that he was last seen on  a primitive flotation device, or that he is hiding at his brother’s house or that he is in fact on a fishing holiday in Malaysia.)

Or let us question why action was not taken against other prominent bloggers during the election. There is a prominent blog which appeared back in  May 2011 and is one of the first ones that comes up during a casual google of certain names, recently in the news. No action has been taken. The blogger ends with,

By the way, to Director of the Criminal Investigation Department, Assistant Commissioner of Police Hoong Wee Teck who said after tracking down a blogger online that those who made  remarks online and think that they can hide behind the Internet’s anonymity will be found out, please remember you work for the Singapore people, not PAP politicians.

So when we come up against the control in the new media and the main stream media let us double our efforts to express our views and find clever ways to avoid  the pitfalls without succumbing to the climate of fear or adding to the homogeneity.

Tomorrow I will publish an exchange of letters I had with the Straits Times, on this topic which were ignored but are still current to this debate. I have  a whole host of such letters and exchanges with MSM and others but I must save some  of the more chilling examples for my book!

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