Wednesday, November 5, 2008

Wall Street Journal accused of attacking Singapore judiciary

"I will hit you where it hurts. Then we will see your commitment to a free press." - Lee Kuan Yew

AFP - Wednesday, November 5

SINGAPORE, Nov 4, 2008 (AFP) - Singapore's attorney-general on Tuesday accused the Wall Street Journal Asia of seeking to undermine the city-state's judiciary and sought a "substantial fine" on the newspaper's publisher.

Attorney-General Walter Woon said two editorials and a letter by Singapore pro-democracy activist Chee Soon Juan published by the business newspaper alleged the judiciary was not independent and lacked integrity.

Woon asked High Court judge Tay Yong Kwang to find Dow Jones Publishing Company (Asia), Inc. in contempt of court and impose a fine "sufficient to hurt but not to cripple" the publisher.

"It will suffice if (the publisher) is brought to realise the consequences of its behaviour and is induced to refrain from further attempts to undermine the courts and judges of Singapore," he said.

The Wall Street Journal Asia had "cast aspersions on the independence, impartiality and integrity" of the Singapore judiciary twice in the past, Woon noted.

He said the case was "not about the freedom of speech per se" but "about the rule of law and the vital role that the courts and judiciary play in its maintenance."

Woon had earlier applied for contempt proceedings against Dow Jones as well as international editor Daniel Hertzberg and managing editor Christine Glancey.

But judicial sources told AFP on Tuesday that Hertzberg and Glancey had applied to have the serving of the court summons on them set aside.

This means the court will proceed first with the case against Dow Jones Publishing and will have a separate hearing for the application by Hertzberg and Glancey at a later date, the sources said.

Senior Counsel Philip Jeyaretnam, representing Dow Jones Publishing, argued that his client had not undermined the judiciary.

"It is necessary for your honour to consider whether there is one sole word that is in contempt of the court," he told the High Court.

Dow Jones Publishing released a statement Tuesday defending its publication of the articles.

"Today in court we defended our right to report and comment on matters of international interest, including matters concerning Singapore," said the statement.

"We also argued that in this instance, what we published simply does not constitute contempt of court."

International human rights groups have accused Singapore leaders of using the courts to stifle dissent, but they argue this is necessary to protect their reputation from unfounded attacks.

Singapore's leaders have won hundreds of thousands of dollars in damages from defamation suits filed against critics and foreign publications.

Most recently, the Far Eastern Economic Review was found by a High Court judge to have defamed the country's founding father Lee Kuan Yew and his son, Prime Minister Lee Hsien Loong.

The Far Eastern Economic Review is a sister publication of the Wall Street Journal Asia.