The editor of a Singaporean website was charged with defamation Thursday for publishing a letter alleging corruption among the city-state’s leaders, with rights groups criticizing the “heavy-handed” response from authorities.
Singapore has long been criticized for restricting free speech and other political rights, as well as slapping critics with financially ruinous libel suits.
The affluent financial hub is regularly ranked among the world’s least corrupt countries and its leaders are sensitive about accusations of graft.
Terry Xu was charged in court with defaming government ministers after his independent media website, The Online Citizen, published a letter stating there was “corruption at the highest echelons” of Singapore’s government, according to court documents.
Police seized computers and other devices used to operate the website from Xu’s residence after receiving a complaint.
The website ceased publication temporarily but is now up and running again.
Xu faces a maximum jail term of two years and a fine, or both.
If there's something wrong in an editor's letter charging official corruption, Singapore should seek a correction, apology or retraction, not criminally prosecute the writer. https://t.co/1DLSIFaN8j pic.twitter.com/xKfpKwa5mA
— Kenneth Roth (@KenRoth) December 13, 2018
The letter’s author, Daniel De Costa Augustin, was also charged with defamation and breaking computer crime laws for allegedly sending the piece from another person’s email account without their consent.
Augustin’s letter was published in September under the name “Willy Sum”, and did not mention the names of any allegedly corrupt officials or provide any evidence of graft.
Phil Robertson, deputy Asia director at Human Rights Watch, said that Singapore authorities had “once again responded to criticism with criminal charges.”
“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,” he said.
Singapore’s media scene is dominated by pro-government publications, with critical commentary expressed mostly online.
Officials insist tough libel laws are necessary to protect their reputation from unfounded allegations.