Week 9: Moral minefields – Legal and ethical dilemmas

Politics is an oft-overlooked dimension whenever moral and legal issues arise in the course of a journalist’s work. As Professor of Journalism Mark Pearson puts it in chapter 13 of Journalism: Theory in Practice, media law “is subject to the vagaries of its players and the inequities of society” and that “power, politics, and money also wield substantial influence and often become the negotiating chips in a media law matter”.

Nowhere is this more apparent in Singapore than in defamation cases brought about by the government against foreign media and their representatives operating in Singapore.

In February this year, the International Herald Tribune published a column by Philip Bowring described Singapore’s politics as “dynastic”. Singapore Prime Minister Lee Hsien Loong, Minister Mentor Lee Kuan Yew and Senior Minister Goh Chok Tong promptly took legal action the New York Times Company, publisher of the IHT, claiming that the opinion piece was defamatory as it implied that the government practice nepotism. The NYT Company did not bother to contest the charges, opting to settle immediately.

In a similar case in 2002, Singaporean activist Zulfikar Mohamad Shariff of the radical Muslim website Fateha.com (no longer active) was threatened with criminal defamation for his criticism of the government’s appointment of Ho Ching as the chairperson of Temasek Holdings, a state-run investment group, as senior members of the ruling party felt that it implied the government practised nepotism and cronyism. (Ho is married to Lee Hsien Loong, then deputy prime minister of Singapore. Lee is also the son of founding Prime Minister Lee Kuan Yew.)

Dr Cherian George, a Professor of Journalism at the Nanyang Technological University, notes that Singapore’s leaders have “consistently sued for defamation anyone who alleges that anyone in the Lee family has achieved high rank through anything other than merit”. Although left unstated, there is a clear implication that the Singapore government uses defamation legislation more for policy purposes. Stuart D Karle, a former general counsel of The Wall Street Journal, states that there is “often a presumption that there’s a hidden message” about nepotism or corruption in news coverage, and that if faced with a libel case news organisations face “a near-certainty of losing”.

The lesson here is that beyond looking at the laws of the jurisdictions in which your news piece will be published or broadcast, it is also important to understand the local socio-political culture and context of those nations. While a critical piece on the government might go by without problems in a western liberal democracy like the United States or the United Kingdom, there are often repercussions to be faced in other nations, sometimes even beyond legal sanction and into the threat of bodily harm.

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