THE SOUTHEAST ASIAN PRESS ALLIANCE (SEAPA) has raised the alarm over a series of lawsuits filed by the prime ministers of Singapore and Malaysia against online sites, saying this was a kind of bullying to shield officials from public scrutiny and accountability.

The prime ministers of Singapore and Malaysia have filed separate defamation suits against online media for allegedly criticizing them in articles published over the internet.

A news alert issued by SEAPA, a regional network of media organizations upholding press freedom, says a defamation lawsuit was filed by Malaysian Prime Minister Najib Abdul Razak against the popular Malaysian online news service Malaysiakini. (The PCIJ is a founding member of SEAPA)

Interestingly, the lawsuit is not even based on anything that Malaysiakini editors or reporters wrote. Instead, the suit stems from allegedly defamatory comments made by readers that appeared in the “YourSay” section of the news website.

The SEAPA bulletin said the comments “faulted Najib’s leadership and his party UMNO’s alleged racial and religious biases for their declining influence over Malaysian politics.”

Najib is suing for damages, a retraction, and an official apology. Editors of the site said they are going to fight the lawsuit in court.

In Singapore, Prime Minister Lee Hsien Loong accused blogger Roy Ngerng of defamation for a post titled “Where your CPF money is going: Learning from the City Harvest trial”, which appeared in his blog The Heart Truths.

“Lee’s lawyers accused Ngerng of committing libel by alleging that the prime minister is guilty of “criminal misappropriation” of the monies paid by Singaporeans to the Central Provident Fund (CPF), the country’s national pension fund,” the SEAPA bulletin said.

Acceding to the demands of Lee, Ngerng issued an apology. However, Lee’s lawyers rejected Ngerng’s offer of 5,000 SGD compensation, and so the lawsuit moved forward.

SEAPA says the suits are civil in nature, and were filed by the prime ministers “as private individuals.”

“Even though these lawsuits do not use existing criminal defamation laws in both countries, the cases represent blatant actions by the state to suppress freedom of expression and to silence critics,” SEAPA said in its bulletin.

SEAPA also argued that the articles in question were “within the realm of public interest as related to their jobs as politicians and heads of public institutions.”

“(With) the lawsuits, the prime ministers are in effect targeting the online media in general, sending a message to other bloggers and commentators that such manners of commentary will not be tolerated,” SEAPA said. “These leaders can just act as bullies to their people to deflect criticism and accountability, relying on state institutions firmly in the control of their respective parties that have been in power since independence.”

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