Times and Post Cos. Bow to Mightly Singapore
Debra Puchalla is AJR's associate editor and deputy editor of Martha Stewart Living.
Once again Singapore's hypersensitive government has caned the Western press with libel charges. Instead of fighting, the titan owners of the Paris-based International Herald Tribune, the New York Times Co. and the Washington Post Co., meekly accepted the punishment.
After some disagreement over whether cash or principle would prevail, the leadership of the 195,000-circulation IHT agreed to pay $678,571 in libel damages – the highest defamation award ever in Singapore – to the Pacific republic's top three leaders over supposedly derogatory comments about the Singapore government. An alternative would have been for the IHT to relocate its Asian production plant, but that would mean sacrificing hefty advertising revenues as well as money from the 7,000 issues the paper sells in Singapore.
By agreeing to pay, the cowed IHT owners put economic interests over press freedom, says Freedom Forum Asian Center Director John Schidlovsky. "It reinforced the impression that [the IHT] doesn't much believe in fighting for editorial integrity," he says. "It's a sad day for many journalists in Asia, including in Singapore, who would have liked to see a paper owned by the powerful New York Times and Washington Post stand up to [Senior Minister] Lee Kuan Yew's bullying."
The IHT's battle began with an August 2, 1994, opinion piece by freelancer Philip Bowring, in which he dared to mention "dynastic politics" in Asia. Although the offending article did not mention Singapore's leaders by name, four weeks later the IHT apologized. But the groveling wasn't enough for Lee, his son, Deputy Prime Minister Lee Hsien Loong, and Prime Minister Goh Chok Tong, who filed suit against the paper and won.
The IHT is just one of many publications to lose fights with Singapore. Since 1986, when Lee instituted a law giving the government unlimited power to restrict the advertising sales and circulation of any foreign publication deemed to be interfering with domestic politics, the Far Eastern Economic Review and its parent, the Asian Wall Street Journal (both owned by Dow Jones), the Economist and Time all have had run-ins with Singapore's leadership. Most disputes were over the government's right to reply to any and all media reports, a right it exercises with astonishing vigilance, and most cases ended with the publications paying fines or accepting circulation reductions handed down by Singapore's government.
Some assert that the IHT's continued operations under restrictive policies prove that the profit motive outweighs any desire to fight for free expression.
"The press everywhere has to stand up for human rights and freedom of speech," says New York Times columnist William Safire, a vocal Singapore critic. "What's going on in Singapore is a great test of this responsibility."
To pass the test, Safire suggests that the world's free press refuse to cave in to further intimidation. "The press ought to present a united front and say, 'Any libel action will result in all of us pulling out,' " he says. "The government, I think, would back off, as the effect of that would be to depress business."
For their part, the IHT's owners say their decision had less to do with finances than with culture. "We publish in countries that have different laws and different standards and, on occasion, we face the kind of problems presented in Singapore," Katharine Graham of the Post Co. and Arthur Ochs Sulzberger Jr. of the Times Co. said in a statement. The response presented a united front, but internally there was much disagreement about whether, given the repressive nature of government-media relations in Singapore, the internationally renowned paper should have discontinued its operations there.
A Washington Post column by Richard Harwood explained that IHT President Richard Simmons and others on the financial side of the paper were "pitted against" Editor John Vinocur and the content-conscious, who advocated moving the IHT's Singapore operations. Simmons maintains that the IHT considered pulling out, even though it had no legal defense to justify fighting the libel award. According to Prime Minister Goh's testimony, Graham didn't want to pull out; she wanted "to de-escalate this tension between Singapore and the press."
Since then tensions have only escalated. Prime Minister Goh has spoken out against Western journalistic standards, while papers such as the Los Angeles Times, the Chicago Tribune and the Boston Globe (owned by the New York Times Co.) – though not the IHT – have editorialized against Singapore's stringent policies.
Everette E. Dennis, executive director of the Freedom Forum's Media Studies Center, says that for Western media outlets, the culture clash boils down to survival. "If you want to operate any kind of media in Singapore you have to get along with the government or you don't stay," he says.
But economist Christopher Lingle, another IHT freelancer facing a libel suit, says the international media should be more forceful in defending themselves. He says the press should play by Lee's rules and aim directly for the pocketbook.
"International business depends heavily on access to information," Lingle says. "If that's shut down it's difficult for businesses to function. Publications would be saying a lot if they all pulled out simultaneously."
As a visiting university lecturer in Singapore, Lingle wrote an op-ed article that called Singapore's judiciary "compliant." After its publication, police questioned him and confiscated his research materials. Lingle resigned and later learned that, despite an IHT apology, his article had prompted the Singapore government to fine the paper nearly $14,000.
But some think Singapore's victories may be short-lived. According to the Freedom Forum's Dennis, "The Singapore government is fighting a losing battle because the Internet, fax machines and other technologies have already rendered obsolete their ability to control all the information in their own country. This is a last gasp – you cannot stop information."