Reporters Without Borders (RSF) calls on Singapore’s Prime Minister Lee Hsien Loong to abandon his latest absurd complaint against Terry Xu, the editor of the independent news website The Online Citizen (TOC), and to stop deploying his army of lawyers against anyone who publishes news reports he doesn’t like.

In what resembles David going into battle against Goliath, Terry Xufiled a “memorandum of appearance” with Singapore’s high court today in response to the summons issued against him five days ago on Lee’s behalf over a 15 August article. Xu’s filing means that he intends to defend himself against Lee’s lawyers.

Xu, who also uses the Chinese name of Xu Yuanchen, said in a statement that he was going to represent himself to avoid excessive legal fees. But he added: “As I will have to devote my time to prepare the case’s legal defence and learn the court’s procedural rules, the number of articles on TOC would likely drop and with that, its ad revenue.”

“This lawsuit is yet another example of the insidious methods of intimidation and censorship that the Singaporean government uses against any media outlet that does not toe the official line,” said Daniel Bastard, the head of RSF’s Asia-Pacific desk.

TOC plays a vital role as the oldest independent news website in Singapore, where the press is subject to an absolutely implacable system of self-censorship. We urge Prime Minister Lee Hsien Loong to immediately abandon the absurd libel suit filed by his lawyers, which has absolutely no credible basis.”

Major public interest issue

The TOC article that Lee’s lawyers say caused “loss and damage” to their client simply drew attention to a surprising Facebook post by the prime minister’s wife, Ho Ching, in which she explained, “why sometimes it is okay to cut ties with toxic family members”.

It is hard for any political observer in Singapore to ignore the family feud between Lee and his brother and sister, who have been squabbling for a couple of years over part of the inheritance left to them by their father, Lee Kwan Yew, the late prime minister and father of the nation. In the run-up to an often-postponed general election, the issue is an important one for Singapore’s citizens.

TOC is often harassed by the Singaporean authorities. In November 2018, the police arbitrarily detained Xu and Willy Sum, a blogger who had posted a comment on the site, and confiscated some of the site’s electronic equipment.

The prime minister is in the habit of bringing legal actions against anyone disseminating information not to his liking. The blogger Leong Sze Hian continues to face the possibility of a two-year prison sentence simply for sharing an article from the Malaysian website on Facebook.

Singapore is ranked 151st out of 180 countries in RSF’s 2019 World Press Freedom Index.