SINGAPORE — The government here has never enjoyed a cordial relationship with the press.
It has banned some Western correspondents from entering the country and restricted the circulation of several publications, such as the Asian Wall Street Journal and the Economist, because it was displeased with their reporting about Singapore.
But until now, almost all of its ire has been aimed at foreign reporters or journals edited outside of Singapore.
In a long trial that has just resumed hearing testimony here, the government has accused two prominent local journalists of violating the country's Official Secrets Act by publishing a preliminary government estimate of quarterly economic growth.
A number of local journalists say the trial has cast a pall over efforts by reporters and editors in this island nation to broaden debate over social issues in ways that do not conform to official policy.
The government, however, views the trial as a test of its ability to prevent leaks and says it has no wider implications for the press.
Although technically independent of government control, newspapers in Singapore are fat with advertising but rarely publish anything more than officially sanctioned handouts.
Five men have been charged with breaking the Official Secrets Act, including: an official of the country's central bank; two employees of a stock brokerage; Patrick Daniel, editor of the Singapore Business Times, and Kenneth James, the paper's technology editor. All five have pleaded not guilty. They face two years in prison and fines of $1,400 if convicted.
There is no dispute that a brokerage employee saw the data on the growth estimates--normally confidential government information--during a visit to the central bank; the employee then passed the material to the Business Times in a telephone conversation. The government contends that Business Times editors broke the law because the information was not officially released and they had to have known that it had been illegally leaked.
If the case seems like a tempest in a teapot, the government has made clear that this is a test case of its right to control what information is made public. "You can't run a government which is leaking all over the place," Singapore Prime Minister Goh Chok Tong remarked about the case last year.
Lee Kuan Yew, the founding father of modern Singapore who now advises the government as a senior minister, went further, describing journalists as a "pressure group" testing the limits of the government. He referred specifically to suggestions by independent economists writing in the press that the country could afford to cut back on social security savings.
"If I were still PM and in charge, I doubt if the press or the economists working for stockbrokers or fund managers (would) say we are over-saving for the next generations, and be pressing for more spending or more funds for private investments," Lee said.
The rebuke was widely interpreted as a slap at his successor for allowing controls in Singapore's authoritarian society to slip too much. Goh took over promising a "kinder, gentler" government in which such things as film censorship were relaxed. Four months later, though, the government brought the charges of secrets-law violations.
This week, after a two-month recess, the defense opened its case, arguing such issues as whether the information was actually ever classified secret. The stockbroker may simply have glimpsed the figure on a sheet of paper while at the central bank and that it was never "leaked" to him.
But the case is still stirring controversy here. Cheong Yip Seng, editor in chief of Singapore Press Holdings, the company that publishes the country's only English-language newspapers, including the Business Times, described Western news coverage of the case as "off target."
In a speech, he said foreign coverage of the trial was wrong in suggesting that it tests the limits of press freedom. Cheong was quoted as saying: "Those involved in the case knew that the issue was confidentiality, not press freedom."