COMMENTARY: What do the  warning letters to websites mean?


While growing up in Singapore in the 1980s, political discussion was something that was relegated to the confines of coffee shops and cabs driven by disgruntled drivers.

Parents would shush you if you said something critical about the government.

Aunties and uncles would warn you that men will come and take you away in the middle of the night if you harboured thoughts of joining opposition parties.

But then, a major paradigm shift occurred after last year’s General Election which was widely acknowledged as being a watershed one.

Political talk became rather ubiquitous and the perceived political apathy, which many would agree had a stranglehold on the masses, started dissipating.

Much of the credit has to go to social media websites which especially helped to engage the younger segment of Singapore.

But will this apathy and perceived fear make a return to Singapore?

There might be cause for concern here due to the recent three separate incidents where warning letters were sent to websites seeking apologies and removal of offensive content.

The letters were recently sent out by Prime Minister Lee Hsien Loong, his brother Lee Hsien Yang and Law and Foreign Affairs Minister K Shanmugam. (Read previous reports :here and here.)

Many, including those in the international community, have been critical of the Singapore government's alleged approach of using defamation suits to deal with political opponents in the past.

Defamation suits were unleashed on former opposition figures such as JB Jeyaretnam and Tan Liang Hong and these cases received much interest from international human rights groups such as Amnesty International.

Publications such as The Economist and Far Eastern Review Economic Review have also been sued by government leaders for libel.

In its defence, the ruling party, the People's Action Party, has always said that it is vital for the government to stand up against lies and distortion.

In recent years though, the government has been projecting a slightly more liberal image and has been wielding a lighter touch, to a certain extent.

But, the latest salvo of warning letters sent to websites here might just be a warning and a powerful reminder from the government that despite the country becoming liberal in certain aspects over the years – it will not sit back and idly watch when commentators choose libellous words.

But what are the effects of this on political observers and commentators online?

The fear of falling into an expensive and painful libel suit may prove to be a hindrance for citizen journalists and individuals when it comes to penning their thoughts on political issues and critiquing government policies while engaging the community online as well.

Even if they are careful when publishing articles, they have another dilemma – who monitors the comments section which is a vital part of engagement on blogs and social media?

If you have a site that garners more than 500 comments for a post, for instance, will it become necessary for bloggers to hire 'comment - monitors' perhaps?

Of course, it would also help if commentators were careful and avoided posting offensive words.

Or would it be just easier to avoid writing anything about politics?

While there is certainly nothing wrong legally with sending warning letters to website publishers when they cross the legal line, let's hope that these latest warnings don't hamper the growth of political consciousness and robust debate in Singapore.

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