Singapore Libel Case A Test For Murdoch Monday, Jan 7 2008 

2006 CNN report

Eric Ellis, Sydney Morning Herald, 7 Jan 2008

THE TIMES asked readers recently “Is libel dead?” The number of defamation writs issued in British courts last year was about an eighth of the 457 writs 10 years earlier.

The downward trends are similar in other Western jurisdictions such as Australia and North America, suggesting those who willingly stand in the public eye are becoming thicker-skinned in withstanding the decade’s avalanche of media forms.

Or perhaps the media are more careful about who they traduce, and how.

But one place where libel remains a legal growth industry is in a tiny country desperate to become part of the developed world: among the sensitive political and business petals of Singapore. As Rupert Murdoch is himself finding out.

That is because of a long-running case concerning Singapore’s premier political family, the Lees; a case Murdoch’s News Corporation inherited via its recently completed $US6 billion ($6.8 billion) purchase of Dow Jones.

Lee family members include, of course, Singapore’s elder statesman Lee Kuan Yew and his son, the Prime Minister, Lee Hsien Loong.

The Lees have a long history of libel stoushes with foreign media, battles they have never lost when heard in Singapore’s own courts, which grants them damages payouts that set world records. The (pre-Murdoch) Asian Wall Street Journal, Time, The International Herald Tribune, Businessweek, Bloomberg and the Financial Times are among other international names respected for their accuracy and authority that have been hit with the Lees’ libel broadsides. And lost.

The Lees have used similar tactics in seeking to silence political opponents.

Remarks that might be regarded as just part of the rough-and-tumble of competitive political or business culture in Australia often head to the libel courts when aired in Singapore.

However, it is one-way traffic. Opponents have never won an action against the Lees. Singapore is in effect a one-party state, and that party is the Lee party.

Such is the presumption of a libel loss that most media companies now do not even take the fight to trial, instead promptly settling. They know that history says they will not win, and management usually decides that a quick settlement limits expensive legal bills – and possible even higher damages when Lee lawyers insist mid-trial that publicly heard evidence has further harmed sensitive reputations, which prevents airing of issues that may be germane to the case.

It is not just the media. In 2001 what seemed to many bankers to be a normal tactical paper was prepared by Goldman Sachs on behalf of its local client DBS Bank. Goldman-DBS criticised the merits of a rival bid for a bank DBS was seeking to take over.

Target and rival were miffed, complaining to the central bank, and each board soon pocketed $US1 million in damages from DBS, which did not get the deal.

But the case Murdoch has inherited is different. It stems from a profile of the Singapore opposition figure Chee Soon Juan published in the Dow Jones-owned monthly The Far Eastern Economic Review in July 2006.

In it Chee criticises the Government’s handling of a local charity scandal.

But Lees’s lawyers saw a reputational attack and sued the Review on behalf of Lee Kuan Yew and Lee Hsien Loong.

But on this occasion the magazine refused to roll over and settle. Much to Singaporean annoyance, the offending article remains posted on the Review website (alongside a link to human rights press awards). There are front-page pointers to all legal exchanges on the matter and an editor’s letter explaining why the Review is taking the battle to the Lees.

The Review’s arguments are mostly about transparency and the rule of law, the very principles on which Singapore prides itself but many say does not practise with quite the gusto it claims.

It is a case that poses particular issues for all protagonists.

It will be the first time News and the Lees have crossed swords in a libel matter, which has become a perverse kind of rite of passage for other international media proprietors.

The Lees have been the dominant political family in Singapore since the 1950s, about the same time Murdoch has been in charge of News Corp. Both have helped build institutions about the same size; News Corp’s market worth approaches $US100 billion, Singapore’s GDP a bit bigger. Both are expert at projecting power, and neither brook any challenge to their authority.

The Review had argued, pre-Murdoch, that since it did not have an office or staff in Singapore, it should not be subject to Singapore law.

It wanted the matter heard in Hong Kong, where it is based, and where it feels it would get a fairer hearing. The Lees have never won a case outside Singapore.

In a letter to Singapore’s Information Ministry, which has sought a bond from the Review in lieu of presumed damages and Singaporean jurisdiction over the Review, Dow Jones’s lawyers argue “its imposition on the Review, merely for the sake of making it easier for senior ministers of the Singapore Government to recover personal damages in a libel action, would be deeply regretted by all who care for the rule of law in your country.

“It is an exorbitant and unlawful demand that even totalitarian states have never sought to impose on media.”

And that is the way the matter has largely stayed since mid-2006, largely an exchange of testy lawyers’ letters as Singapore throws out the Review’s effort to end the action in Singapore.

But then came Murdoch’s successful bid for Dow Jones last year. The management that previously backed the Review’s feistier approach to Singapore no longer runs the company, after Murdoch put in a new team.

The status of the case is unclear. Outwardly, it seems as if nothing has changed, and a Murdoch-owned Review is still taking on the Singaporeans. The articles and letters remain posted at the Review.com and the Review editors say it is still alive, referring the matter to Dow Jones lawyers, who do not respond.

The matter is pregnant with the notion of what constitutes credibility – Singapore’s own sense of it and News’s in the court of public opinion after the reputational shellacking it received en route to the Dow Jones win.

Singapore’s legal system is also under scrutiny. The US embassy in Singapore has frequently expressed concern about “the ruling party’s use of the court system to intimidate political opponents”. The Australian lawyer Stuart Littlemore, who has observed Singapore libel cases for the International Commission of Jurists, says “the Singapore leadership has a long-standing record of using the High Court as a mechanism for silencing its opponents – by suing them for statements that, in any comparable jurisdiction, would be seen as part of a robust political debate inseparable from democratic freedoms, and by being awarded such unconscionably high damages and costs as to bankrupt the defendants, forcing them out of parliament”.

Credibility was at the heart of the Murdoch bid for Dow Jones. There were numerous critics of his Dow Jones tilt – notably in its own newsrooms, and including some members of the publisher’s controlling Bancroft family (which quickly put aside its gripes in accepting News’s generous offer). The critics said Murdoch and News had insufficient credibility to be custodians of venerable media assets like The Wall Street Journal and The Far Eastern Economic Review.

News Corporation prevailed after a searing battle in which Murdoch’s personal and corporate reputation was assailed, almost to the point of him pulling out. Murdoch himself said bitterly that he was treated like a “genocidal tyrant”.

A significant aspect of the appeal of Dow Jones to Murdoch is its under-played assets in booming Asia, a region where Singapore interests are hugely influential, both politically and commercially, and where Murdoch thinks he can add much value absorbing Dow Jones into the rest of the News empire.

But just as Murdoch has been cited as providing the type of media Asia does not want, notably by China, wealthy Singapore is often cited as a regional development model, particularly in effective one-party states like China and through Central Asia.

It is an important, if sometimes self-serving, voice in the so-called Asian Values debate.

Unlike many of his competitors, Murdoch’s titles have never experienced a Singapore libel action. The city-state has rather been seen by News as a place to raise money and do business – notably in 2001 when Murdoch briefly entered a joint venture with Singapore’s state-owned telecom (then run by a son of Lee Kuan Yew) in an unsuccessful bid for Hong Kong’s leading telecom.

But with this libel headache now on Murdoch’s desk, Singapore faces a media company run by a dominant individual who is an archly pragmatic dealmaker when it suits him. That could mean wiggle room for legal negotiation except that, with libel, the Lees famously are not much for turning. Absolute victory is their goal. It will be fascinating to see how the battle plays out, mindful of the messages it could send around a democratising region where state control of media is evolving and where libel clearly is not yet dead.

Eric Ellis is South-East Asian Correspondent for Fortune Magazine.

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Financial Times Apologises & Pays Damages To Son, Dad AND Daughter-in-Law Wednesday, Oct 17 2007 

Financial Times apologises to Singapore PM, father

SINGAPORE, Oct 17 (Reuters) – London’s Financial Times apologised on Wednesday to Singapore’s Prime Minister Lee Hsien Loong and his father Lee Kuan Yew after the paper said it implied the prime minister got his position with the elder Lee’s help.

In a published apology on Wednesday, the business newspaper said its Sept. 29 article, entitled “Sovereign funds try to put on an acceptable face”, implied Lee Kuan Yew was instrumental in securing his son’s appointment as prime minister.

“We admit and acknowledge that these allegations are false and completely without foundation,” the newspaper said.

Lee Kuan Yew was himself Singapore’s first prime minister, a post he held for decades until he stepped down in 1990. He remains in his son’s cabinet with the title “Minister Mentor”.

The Financial Times, owned by publisher Pearson , said it had agreed to pay damages to compensate the Lees and Lee Hsien Loong’s wife, Ho Ching, the head of state investment fund Temasek [TEM.UL]. The amount of damages was not specified.

Singapore leaders have threatened or taken legal action against and won apologies and damages from many foreign media organisations in the past when they reported on local politics, including the Economist, the International Herald Tribune and Bloomberg.

Hong Kong’s Far Eastern Economic Review, owned by Dow Jones & Co , is presently fighting a libel suit brought against it by the Lees.

CNN’s report last year

Singapore officials say the legal actions are necessary to protect their reputations.

The Financial Times also apologised for saying it implied Lee Hsien Loong was “instrumental” in securing his wife Ho Ching’s appointment as chief executive officer of Temasek, and that Ho was in turn helping her brother-in-law Lee Hsien Yang win an appointment as the chief executive officer of Singapore’s DBS Group , Southeast Asia’s largest bank.

Jackson Tai, the chief executive officer of DBS, surprised investors when he suddenly resigned last month. The bank said it was in a global search for Tai’s replacement.

Lee Hsien Yang, the younger brother of Lee Hsien Loong, resigned as head of Singapore Telecommunications last year and has since been appointed chairman of conglomerate Fraser & Neave .

“We unreservedly apologise to Prime Minister Lee Hsien Loong, Minister Mentor Lee Kuan Yew and Ms Ho Ching for the distress and embarrassment caused to them by these allegations,” the Financial Times said.

Note from Pseudonymity: Read We’re sorry Singapore, the Financial Times says from Asia Sentinel

Singapore Appeals Court Orders Reuters To Disclose Source Saturday, May 26 2007 

by Jonathan Lynn

SINGAPORE, May 25 (Reuters) – Reuters identified an anonymous source on Friday after Singapore’s Court of Appeal ordered a reporter for the international news agency to disclose the name and the source gave permission to do so.

The source released the reporter from her duty of confidentiality when it became clear that the reporter would face jail unless she complied with the court order, confirmed by the appeal court on Thursday.

Singapore law does not recognise the right of journalists to protect the identity of their sources, which is enshrined in the laws of many countries protecting freedom of expression, as well as recognised by the European Court of Human Rights.

“It is Reuters policy to protect the confidentiality of our sources,” Reuters Editor-in-Chief David Schlesinger said. “To defend this principle we challenged the order in court and fought it all the way to Singapore’s Court of Appeal, the highest court in Singapore.”

The reporter had been called to give evidence in a commercial case between two brokers in the city-state, Tullett Prebon and BGC Partners. Tullett Prebon had asked the reporter to identify a source quoted in a story about how the two brokers settled a dispute over the hiring of a team of traders.

The court order obtained by Prebon, and upheld by the appeal court, warned the reporter she faced imprisonment to compel her to comply with the order. Under these circumstances, the source did not want the reporter to break the law and defy the court. The source therefore consented to the disclosure.

“We believe confidentiality of anonymous sources must be protected as it is this trust between source and reporter that brings to light vital information and helps provide the transparency so necessary for the efficient working of markets in a free and vibrant society,” Schlesinger said.

“I regret that the courts ruled against this principle that I believe is so important not only for a free press but also for a clean, orderly and transparent market.”

Reuters uses anonymous sources only when it believes they can provide necessary information that cannot be obtained in another way.

##########

Updated at 0920hrs with the following news report

Who is the source?

• Court orders media to reveal name • ST, BT give in after initial fight • Reuters refuses; case goes to highest court

Weekend TODAY • May 26, 2007

Ansley Ng
ansley@mediacorp.com.sg

AN out-of-court settlement between two rival broking firms has put two Singapore newspapers, a foreign news agency and a public relations company in a spot over protecting sources and client confidentiality.

The Straits Times and The Business Times agreed to reveal to the High Court the source of their reports relating to the confidential amount on that court settlement: An employee of public relations agency Huntington Communications, which services one of the broking firms.

But Reuters refused, fighting all the way to the Court of Appeal. On Friday, its correspondent, Ms Mia Shanley, finally agreed to reveal her source to the court – only after her source gave her permission to do so. The identity of Reuters’ source was not made public.

The episode started on Nov 24 after Reuters had published a report by Ms Shanley on an out-of-court settlement between broking firms, Tullett Prebon and BGC International.

Prebon had taken BGC to court, accusing it of conspiring with its ex-regional head of poaching 51 of its staff and claimed $66.4 million for lost business.

Both companies later settled the matter out of court after a four-week trial, with BGC agreeing to pay Prebon an undisclosed sum of money.

Citing a “source”, Ms Shanley, an American citizen who has been working for Reuters for five years, reported the amount of the settlement – “around a fifth of the $66.4 million requested” – in her Nov 24 article.

Ms Wee Li-En of The Business Times and Mr Arthur Poon of The Straits Times, in their reports on Nov 25, wrote that the BGC would pay Prebon “less than half” of $66.4 million.

BGC later refused to pay on grounds that a confidentiality obligation in the deal had been breached by Prebon, referring to the leak of the agreed amount.

Prebon, on the other hand, accused BGC of doing the same.

Subsequently, both companies served court papers on the reporters to reveal their sources.

The court orders placed the reporters in a difficult situation as journalists in Singapore don’t have the legal privilege of protecting their sources, unlike their counterparts in countries such as Australia and United Kingdom.

After initially resisting, ST and BT reporters disclosed their respective sources to the High Court. Both pointed to Huntington,which is Prebon’s public relations firm.

Ms Shanley, however, held on. At a court hearing on May 17, High Court Justice Andrew Ang agreed with Prebon’s lawyers and ordered Ms Shanley to reveal her source.

“I do not think … she can plead her fear of breach of an undertaking of confidentiality between herself and her source as the justification for her refusal,” said Justice Ang. “There is no ‘newspaper rule’ in Singapore.”

But Ms Shanley refused, with her company deciding to fight the case all the way up to the Court of Appeal, Singapore’s highest court. Ms Shanley could not be reached for comment.

Her application was dismissed by the Court of Appeal on Thursday. The next day, Ms Shanley, who could have faced jail unless she heeded the court order, relented.

According to Reuters, the source had given Ms Shanley permission to do so, thus releasing her from her duty of confidentiality.

According to Ms Doris Chia, who has more than 15 years of experience as a litigation lawyer, this is the first time such a case – involving a journalist challenging the need to reveal his source – has gone all the way up to the Court of Appeal.

“The law in Singapore is that if you were found to be in contempt, you will continue to be dealt with. Sitting in jail for two weeks will not cure the contempt … you will still have to spit out the name,” said Ms Chia.

Reuters editor-in-chief, Mr David Schlesinger, said on Friday that the company had fought all the way to the Court of Appeal to defend its policy of protecting the confidentiality of its sources.

A Reuters spokeswoman also told Today: “We believe that confidentiality of anonymous sources must be protected as it is that trust between source and reporter which brings to light vital information that helps to provide the transparency so necessary for the efficient working of markets in a free and vibrant society.”

When asked why BT had revealed its source, Mr Vikram Khanna, BT’s Associate Editor, said: “It is not the newspaper’s position to reveal or not to reveal (the source). The source belongs to the reporter, the source does not belong to the newspaper.”

The Straits Times could not be reached for comment. Huntington, Ms Wee and Mr Poon declined comment when contacted.