Singapore action against Roy Ngerng a setback for freedom of expression: ICJ

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The decision of the High Court of Singapore ordering blogger Roy Ngerng to pay damages to Prime Minister Lee Hsien Loong following a civil defamation suit brought in 2014 constitutes a major blow for freedom of expression in the country, said the International Commission of Jurists (ICJ) today.

In a judgment released on 17 December 2015, the High Court ordered Roy Ngerng to pay SG$100,000 in general damages (approximately US$70,667) and SG$50,000 (approximately US$35,330) in aggravated damages.

This decision comes approximately six months after a three-day hearing on assessment of damages took place.

“Under international standards, individuals must not be the target of defamation actions over comments made about public figures, particularly where the subject matter is of public interest,” said Sam Zarifi, ICJ’s Regional Director for Asia and the Pacific.

“This decision sends a clear message that the people of Singapore are not in fact free to express their opinions about matters of public interest,” he added.

This suit against Roy Ngerng was brought by Prime Minister Lee who argued that Roy Ngerng, in his blog, suggested that the Prime Minister bore responsibility for criminal misappropriation of the Central Provident Fund (CPF), the social security savings plan of the citizens of Singapore.

In a summary judgment delivered in November 2014, the High Court found Roy Ngerng liable for defaming the Prime Minister. Roy Ngerng was later ordered by the court to pay Prime Minister Lee SG$29,000 (approximately US$22,300) for the legal fees and related expenses incurred pertaining the application for the summary judgment. Roy Ngerng did not appeal the High Court’s decision.

“The government’s ongoing use of defamation proceedings to silence critics is a deplorable practice that undermines the rule of law. It is very concerning to see measures imposed in the region that cast a chilling effect on freedom of expression of activists and human rights defenders,” said Zarifi.

The findings in this decision are inconsistent with international standards on freedom of opinion and expression that establish that pecuniary awards should be conferred only when non-pecuniary remedies, including apology, rectification and clarification are insufficient.

Background:

Roy Ngerng maintains a blog called The Heart Truths to discuss social issues. Many of the posts on his blog advocate for more transparency in the management of the Central Provident Fund.

On 15 May 2014, Ngerng published the allegedly defamatory post on his blog. A few days later, he was asked by the Prime Minister’s lawyers to take down the post, apologize and make a written offer of damages and costs, which Ngerng did within the following five days.

Despite these actions, the Prime Minister proceeded to sue the blogger for defamation. Prime Minister Lee later applied to the High Court to enter interlocutory judgment for damages to be assessed. The court ruled in his favor.

The hearing on the assessment of damages took place from 1-3 July 2015. At the end of the hearing, the High Court directed the parties to file written submissions to address issues that were raised during the three-day hearing.

In June 2015, the ICJ submitted a legal opinion to the High Court in support of certain aspects of the defendant’s position.

Report by ICJ

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Dr M: Opposition needs to be strong

“The Opposition plays a very important role, but if it is too small, it will not be effective in ensuring that the government does not abuse its powers. For good governance, the Opposition must be very strong, and be able to offer alternatives. No party should rule forever.

For a democracy to really succeed, the electorate must understand the democratic system. This is because the election can be manipulated, the election itself can be rigged, and money and political pressure can be used unless the people are knowledgeable about the laws and the democratic processes.”

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