Singapore editor jailed for defamation over corruption claims

The editor of a now-closed Singaporean news outlet has been jailed for three weeks for defamation over a letter published on the site that alleged corruption among government ministers.

Terry Xu, the former editor of the Online Citizen, was convicted last year for the publication of a letter that said there was “corruption at the highest echelons”.

The Online Citizen was known for its relatively liberal stance and for featuring criticism of the authorities in the city-state, where media is tightly controlled. It was closed last year after Singapore’s media regulator rescinded its licence, stating it had failed to declare the sources of its funding.

The regulator the Infocomm Media Development Authority said it was necessary for the site to do so to avoid foreign actors from influencing domestic politics. Xu had said he did not want to betray the confidentiality of the site’s subscribers.

Xu’s jailing adds to fears over worsening of media freedoms in Singapore, which ranks 160th out of 180 territories in Reporters Without Borders’ World Press Freedom Index, behind Belarus and Russia.

On Thursday, the district judge Ng Peng Hong said a jail term was warranted for Xu considering “the nature of the allegation, the standing of the defamed parties, as well as the wide spread of the publication”.

The author of the letter, Daniel De Costa Augustin, was sentenced to three months and three weeks, after he was convicted of defamation and breaking computer crime laws for sending the letter from another person’s email account without their consent.

In a statement posted on Facebook after the sentencing, Xu described the charge against him and the police investigation as “selective and unfair”. The letter had made no mention of individuals or entities, he said.

“I am opting to serve my sentence with immediate effect and not asking for a stay of sentence even though I am appealing against the conviction. I am not afraid of the jail sentence imposed upon me and strongly deny the charge placed before me,” Xu said.

Separately, Xu and another Online Citizen writer were ordered to pay substantial damages last year after losing a defamation suit against the prime minister, Lee Hsien Loong.

Rights groups and press freedom advocates accuse Singapore of using defamation suits and other draconian laws to suppress critical coverage.

Last year, parliament passed a foreign interference law that granted broad powers to the authorities, including the ability to compel internet service providers and social media platforms to provide user information and block content they deem hostile. A fake news law came into effect in 2019, which gave ministers the power to order social media sites to put warnings next to posts they consider false.

AFP contributed to this report.

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