Libel laws 'apply to Internet too'

SINGAPORE - The Internet is not above the laws of defamation, said Chang Li Lin, the press secretary to Prime Minister Lee Hsien Loong, in a letter to The Economist.

Responding to an article on the magazine's website about blogger Roy Ngerng's allegations that PM Lee misappropriated Central Provident Fund (CPF) savings, Ms Chang said: "This was a grave and deliberate defamation, whether it occurred online or in the traditional media being immaterial."

The June 13 article, titled "A Butterfly on a Wheel", came in the wake of PM Lee's defamation suit against Mr Ngerng, who in a May 15 blog post also questioned the lack of transparency with which CPF funds are managed.

Mr Lee claimed damages, legal costs, as well as an injunction to stop Mr Ngerng from further defaming him.

The 33-year-old is the first blogger in Singapore to be sued for defamation by a political leader over online comments. He was subsequently sacked for "neglect of duty and his improper public conduct (which) have compromised his work performance", said his employer, Tan Tock Seng Hospital.

The Economist piece noted that Singapore's previous prime ministers, Goh Chok Tong and Lee Kuan Yew, had successfully "taken legal action in the past to defend their reputations".

But Mr Ngerng's case was "something of a departure" and "is unusual for damages to be demanded for an article published solely online".

Ms Chang also took issue with what The Economist called an "alleged 'serious libel'" that Mr Ngerng made.

"This is not an allegation, Ms Chang wrote. "Mr Ngerng has publicly admitted accusing Prime Minister Lee Hsien Loong of criminal misappropriation of pension funds, falsely and completely without foundation."

She added that after the 33-year-old promised to apologise and remove the post, he "did the opposite; he actively disseminated the libel further".

Mr Ngerng had apologised on May 23, but posted a YouTube video and blog post the next day that Mr Lee's lawyer, Senior Counsel Davinder Singh, said showed that Mr Ngerng's apology "was not and never meant to be genuine".

"When someone makes false and malicious personal allegations that impugn a person's character or integrity, the victim has the right to vindicate his reputation, whether he is an ordinary citizen or the Prime Minister," said Ms Chang.

"It is perfectly possible to have a free and vigorous debate without defaming anyone, as occurs often in Singapore," she added.

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