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Singapore Plans to Charge Writer Over Article : Asia: Professor wrote that region's regimes repressed dissent. Action also planned against U.S.-owned newspaper.

November 19, 1994|CHARLES P. WALLACE | TIMES STAFF WRITER

SINGAPORE — The Singaporean government announced Friday that it is bringing contempt of court charges against an American academic and a U.S.-owned newspaper for publishing an opinion article critical of the human rights records of Asian regimes.

A statement released by the attorney general's office said the High Court had granted the government permission to seek contempt of court charges against the academic, Christopher Lingle, and the newspaper, the International Herald Tribune, as well as the newspaper's Singapore correspondent, its publisher and its printer in Singapore. A hearing on the case was set for Dec. 2.

The International Herald Tribune is jointly owned by the New York Times and the Washington Post. Its headquarters is in Paris, and it prints editions in a number of cities around the world. The Singapore printer charged is the owner of the Straits Times, the government-controlled newspaper here.

The statement said the contempt of court action was for the publication on Oct. 7 of an editorial page article written by Lingle, who was a senior fellow at the National University of Singapore, that contained "a statement concerning the Singapore judiciary."

Contempt of court is a quasi-criminal charge and can result in a fine or imprisonment. The defendants were ordered to show cause why they should not be punished.

Lingle's article alleged that regimes in the region, which he did not name, used "considerable ingenuity in the methods of suppressing dissent." He said some regimes rely on a "compliant judiciary" to bankrupt opposition politicians.

The Singaporean authorities maintain that the reference was an innuendo that could only apply to Singapore. While a number of opposition politicians have been bankrupted by defamation suits, government officials maintain that they won the cases on their merits and not because the judiciary was compliant.

After the publication of the article, Lingle was questioned by the police at his office at the university. He subsequently left Singapore on an emergency leave and has not returned.

Reached by telephone in Atlanta on Friday, Lingle said he would not return to Singapore to face the charges.

"I am happy to be a citizen of a country that holds freedom of the press to be sacred," Lingle said. "Freedom of the press is a necessary vehicle for citizens to challenge their government without fear of arrest or punishment for expressing their opinions."

The case attracted considerable attention in the United States after the State Department issued a statement expressing "disappointment at this apparent attempt by Singaporean authorities to intimidate Professor Lingle."

It followed an international uproar over Singapore's flogging of American teen-ager Michael Fay in May on vandalism charges.

Singaporean Prime Minister Goh Chok Tong defended the toughness of the response in the Lingle case, saying the government is "thin-skinned" when it came to remarks about its honesty.

"If anybody impugns the government's integrity, and it amounts to defamation, the government will take action," Goh said.

In recent years, Singaporean authorities have sought to restrict the circulation of a number of foreign publications that carried articles displeasing to the government, including the Hong Kong magazine Far Eastern Economic Review, the Asian Wall Street Journal and the British magazine The Economist.

For foreign publications circulating in Singapore, the government demands a "right of reply" in which newspapers and magazines must print government letters responding to articles about Singapore or face restrictions on their circulation.

Earlier this year, the International Herald Tribune printed a public apology to Lee Kuan Yew, the founding father of Singapore who now holds the title senior minister, for another opinion page article that suggested "dynastic" politics were at work in Singapore.

Lee filed a defamation suit against the Asian Wall Street Journal in 1989 after the newspaper printed remarks about a High Court judgment awarding Lee $230,000 damages in compensation. The newspaper apologized.

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