Singapore says WSJ wages two-decade judicial attack

SINGAPORE (Reuters) - Singapore’s attorney general accused the Wall Street Journal on Tuesday of waging a two-decade campaign to besmirch the Singapore judiciary, at the start of a contempt of court case brought against the newspaper.

A view of the Central Business District in Singapore, September 23, 2008. REUTERS/Allison Ching

Singapore’s attorney general is seeking contempt proceedings against the publisher of the Asian edition of the Wall Street Journal, News Corp’s Dow Jones & Co, and two of the newspaper’s editors, Daniel Hertzberg and Christine Glancey. “Freedom of speech in Singapore allows a person to criticize government policy and the decisions of the courts. There is no fetter on public debate about policy,” attorney general Walter Woon said in court.

“When discussion of a court’s judgments becomes an attack on a judge or the judiciary, then the law of contempt of court steps in,” he said.

Singapore first took legal action against the Wall Street Journal in 1985 for contempt of court for an editorial commenting on the trial of late Singapore opposition leader J.B. Jeyaretnam. The Wall Street Journal apologised and was fined $7,600, according to newspaper reports.

Woon said he was looking for a “substantial fine” to be imposed on Dow Jones in the current case, but was not looking to cripple the company financially.

The case is the latest in a string of legal actions brought by the Southeast Asian country against foreign news organizations.

The attorney general’s office said the two editorials published in the Asian Wall Street Journal, entitled “Democracy in Singapore” and “Judging Singapore’s Judiciary,” alleged that Singapore’s judiciary was “not independent” and “is biased and lacks integrity.”

The lawyer representing Dow Jones Publishing Co (Asia) Inc, Philip Jeyaretnam, said the two editorials were opinion pieces, with a smart and informal tone that should not be read as sarcastic or disrespectful.

“Newspapers don’t conduct 25-year campaigns, and the Wall Street Journal is certainly not part of any campaign,” Jeyaretnam said in his opening remarks to the court.

Jeyaretnam, the son of J.B. Jeyaretnam and a former president of Singapore’s Law Society, said the defense of fair criticism should apply and the publication had shown no malice.

“The readership of the Wall Street Journal Asia is a discerning one ... It expects to hear different sides of any debate and to make up its own mind,” he said.

Singapore leaders have won damages, settlements and apologies in the past from foreign media groups when they reported on local politics, including The Economist, the Far Eastern Economic Review, Bloomberg News and the Financial Times.

Writing by Neil Chatterjee; Editing by Paul Tait