A general view of the Parliament House in Singapore June 2, 2016. 

© 2016 Reuters
(Bangkok) – Singapore authorities should drop criminal defamation charges against Terry Xu, editor of the online news site The Online Citizen, for publishing a letter alleging government corruption, Human Rights Watch said today. Xu is scheduled to appear in court on December 13, 2018. The authorities should also drop the criminal defamation charge filed against the letter’s author.

“Singapore authorities have once again responded to criticism with criminal charges,” said Phil Robertson, deputy Asia director. “The government should respond to any inaccuracies in the letter by seeking a correction, apology or retraction, rather than with a heavy-handed criminal prosecution.” 

The letter, published on September 4 by The Online Citizen, one of the few alternative news sources in Singapore, was from someone identified as “Willy Sum.” The letter criticized a Facebook post by a member of parliament and alleged corruption in the upper echelons of the Singapore government. The Online Citizen took down the letter two weeks later after the government Info-communications Media Development Authority (IMDA) ordered it to do so.

Nevertheless, on November 20 the police went to the homes of Xu and “Willy Sum” and seized their electronic equipment. Xu was interrogated for eight hours at the police station. On December 12, the authorities announced that Xu would be charged with criminal defamation. If convicted, he faces up to two years in prison. The authorities also charged the letter writer, identified as DeCosta Daniel Augustin, with criminal defamation and with unauthorized access to computer material in violation of the Computer Misuse Act for allegedly using another person’s email account to submit the letter.

Criminal defamation violates international norms on freedom of speech that defamation should be considered a civil matter, not a crime punishable with imprisonment. Criminal defamation laws are a disproportionate and unnecessary restriction on free speech and create a chilling effect that effectively restricts legitimate as well as harmful speech.

For these reasons, the United Nations special rapporteur on freedom of opinion and expression and the representative on freedom of the media of the Organization for Security and Co-operation in Europe (OSCE), together with the Organization of American States special rapporteur for freedom of expression, have concluded that criminal defamation is “not a justifiable restriction on freedom of expression” and have called for the abolition of such laws.

Defamation cases filed by government officials or public persons are particularly problematic. While government officials and those involved in public affairs are entitled to protection of their reputation, including protection against defamation, as individuals who have sought to play a role in public affairs they must tolerate a greater degree of scrutiny and criticism than ordinary citizens.

“It’s outrageous that the news site took down the letter after the authorities told it to do so, yet the government is still bringing criminal charges against the site and the letter’s author,” Robertson said. “The criminal defamation charges should be dropped immediately.”