Tuesday, November 30, 2021

Editor of shuttered Singapore news site could face jail after defamation verdict

Terry Xu was convicted of defaming Cabinet members over the publication of a letter on the site stating there was 'corruption at the highest echelons'.

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The editor of a shuttered Singaporean news website may face jail after being convicted on Friday of defaming government ministers over a letter published on the portal alleging corruption.

It is the latest case to fuel concerns about worsening press freedoms in tightly controlled Singapore, with authorities accused of using heavy-handed tactics to silence dissent.

The Online Citizen, which was often critical of authorities, had long been in the government’s crosshairs, and finally had its licence cancelled last month over a failure to declare funding sources.

On Friday, chief editor Terry Xu was convicted of defaming cabinet members over the publication of a letter on the site stating there was “corruption at the highest echelons”, according to court documents.

The 39-year-old, who will be sentenced next month, faces up to two years in jail and a fine for approving the publication in 2018.

The letter’s author, Daniel De Costa Augustin, was also convicted of defamation and breaking computer crime laws for sending the piece from another person’s email account without their consent.

The 38-year-old faces up to two years in jail for each count.

Prosecutors said the case was about whether people should be allowed to “utilise online platforms as an insidious means to launch baseless and unsubstantiated attacks against other persons”.

“This case is not, and has never been, about freedom of speech or about the need to hold the government to account,” they said, according to the documents.

Xu had argued during the trial that the letter was not referring to individual members of the cabinet, local media reported.

He told AFP it was a “disappointing judgment by the court”, and that he intended to appeal.

Daniel Bastard, from media watchdog Reporters Without Borders, said the treatment of Xu “clearly constitutes persecution”.

The case “will inevitably send a terrible, chilling message to all other independent journalists in the city-state”, he told AFP.

In September, Xu lost a defamation suit against Prime Minister Lee Hsien Loong over an article carried by the site, and was ordered to pay substantial damages.

Singapore’s media sector is dominated by pro-government outlets.

The city-state ranks 160th out of 180 countries and territories in Reporters Without Borders’ World Press Freedom Index, where number one indicates the country with the greatest media freedoms.

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