Leslie Chew, the Singaporean cartoonist behind the popular Facebook page Demon-cratic Singapore, was arrested on Friday for sedition and was released on a S$10,000 (around 6,300 Euros) bail two days later (South China Morning Post 25/04/2013, p. A10).
He has been charged with sedition, as defined by Singapore’s Sedition Act, for posting on the 27 of March a comic strip that allegedly accused the Singaporean government of racism towards Malay minorities.
The strip, with the subtitle “Malay Population. Deliberately suppressed by a racist government“, depicts a politician saying “We have the some [sic!] of the most talented Indians from India, most talented Chinese and most talented Caucasians for companies to tap on.” Someone in the crowd asks: “What? No mention of Malay talents?” And two others say: “It is no secret that he abhors Malays.” “Damn racist government!“
Leslie Chew’s satiric Facebook page has over 22,000 followers. It claims to be “totally fictional” and “with entirely fictional characters”, but the themes and the characters are clearly inspired by real people, mostly politicians, and by Singaporean politics and society.
According to the Sedition Act, Cap. 290:
it is an offence, inter alia, “to promote feelings of ill-will and hostility between different races or classes of the population of Singapore” (Lai 2008, p. 64).
The Sedition Act has already been used in the past against members of Singapore’s blogosphere. In 2005, for instance, three bloggers were convicted under the Sedition Act for posting blog comments that were anti-Muslim (ibid.).
Mr Choo Zheng Xi, Leslie Chew’s lawyer, said that Mr. Chew’s mobile phone, computer and hard disk as well as his passport have been taken by the police for the purpose of the investigation. Mr Chew was also questioned about another cartoon from 14 December 2012, which had prompted the Attorney General’s Chambers (AGC) to send him a letter of complaint, in which it was stated that the cartoon “scandalises our Courts through allegations and imputations that are scurrilous and false” (The Straits Times 24/04/2013, p. B1).
Terms such as “public order”, “national interest”, “subversive”, and “disaffection” which are used in several of Singapore’s draconian security acts, such as the Sedition Act or the Internal Security Act, “are so ambiguous as to render any particular action not favored by the government susceptible to being interpreted as contravening these laws” (Tan 2008, p. 4). However,
[W]ithin the dominant discourse of vulnerability, survival, and success, it has not been difficult for the government to justify these coercive powers to [gain the support of] pragmatic, and materialistic Singaporeans who only desire to live in peace, safety, comfort, and affluence […], (ibid., pp. 4-5).
Among famous cases of bloggers sued for defamation was that of Jiaohao Chen, a Singaporean student who lived in the United States, who in May 2005 was accused by the government-founded Agency for Science, Technology and Research (A*STAR) of posting “untrue and serious accusations against A*STAR, its officers and other parties”. The agency threatened him “with legal consequences unless the objectionable statements were removed and an acceptable apology published“. In order to avoid a lawsuit, Chen complied with A*STAR’s requests (Deibert 2008, p. 366).
The issue of whether and when the expression of individual opinions and criticism can be considered defamation is highly controversial. Anyone risks to be perceived as libellous, because criticism and defamation can be easily confused. This is not only a problem in Asian countries, where big business and strong governments often have vested interests and don’t wish to be denounced publicly. It must be remarked that criticism is often based on individual opinions and perceptions, and therefore it is easy to find in them defamatory elements.
The West, too, has its number of controversial cases. Italy, for instance, is notorious for its media politicization and the risks “uncomfortable” journalists face. However, even in the Italian case, which is perhaps one of the worst-functioning democracies in Europe, journalists still have considerable power thanks to the judiciary.
Only to name one example, journalist Marco Travaglio, who is a staunch critic of the political class, has often been sued for defamation. In one case that dates back to 2005, business tycoon Silvio Berlusconi filed a lawsuit against Travaglio, accusing him of slander and false statements aimed at attacking him personally and weakening his political position prior to the election campaign of 2001, in which Berlusconi ran as the leader of the party that subsequently won (note). However, Travaglio and another journalist were acquitted (note).
The balance between free speech and defamation is often blurred. It is easy to interpret criticism as calumny. This subtle distinction can be manipulated by powerful groups or individuals to protect their image and interests. Personally, I believe that freedom of expression should always have priority and be restricted only in extreme cases.