Special post by Ang Peng Hwa, Dean, School of Communication and Information, Nanyang Technological University, and Director, Singapore Internet Research Centre.
At about the time that two Singaporean bloggers were facing the potential of expensive defamation suits, another company in Singapore was having its own difficulties because it had used the photo of Minister Mentor Lee Kuan Yew in its marketing brochure.
This company, selling time-shares, had used a photo with a quotation of Minister Mentor Lee Kuan Yew saying that he always took his children for a vacation once a year.
Well, in Singapore it is not deemed flattering for a well-known figure to be used for marketing without his or her knowledge. In fact it makes the person appear, at least in the eyes of law, to be a hard-up for money. In short, it is defamatory.
The moral of the story?
First, the law of defamation is technical and not intuitive. That is, it is not always obvious what is defamatory. In the case of the marketing brochure, some business owners genuinely believe that because politicians are well-known public figures, statements made by them may be used without their permission. But as the timeshare company found out, that is an expensive mistaken notion.
Similarly, with the bloggers, it is a mistake not to know when some statements cross the line. It is possible to make critical remarks in Singapore and many people do. But when the statements are unsupported and erroneous, they cross the line into defamation.
The blogger who put his blog behind a password may have also assumed that the password would be a shield for him. But that is a mistaken assumption because as long as the statements are released to a third party, they are sufficient to constitute grounds for a suit if the statements are defamatory.
The second lesson is that those who tripped up were novices. Because defamation is a somewhat technical offense, one has to know the intricacies of what is defamation and what are the defenses. This area of the law is technical enough so that even lawyers, experienced ones at that, are tripped up. Sometimes even judges disagree – as was shown in a recent case involving the head of a nonprofit organization who was criticized in a recent takeover.
Notwithstanding the technicalities, there is no excuse for a commercial company to make a slip-up like that. For inexperienced bloggers their mistake is somewhat more understandable; but it all depends on the person who has been defamed whether to tolerate the slip-up. This episode illustrates the need for bloggers to understand the law in the context in which they operate. Journalism schools often have to fight the battle that should have been over – that journalism is a specialized enough profession that training is needed to prevent practitioners from getting themselves and others into trouble.
The final quirk in this is that the bloggers are really not journalists. And so while it is a laudable fight, surely Reporters Without Borders (Reporters Sans Frontières) cannot defend those who do not measure up to the standards of professional journalism. To defend these bloggers as if they had the same standards as a professional journalist is an insult to the industry from which the organization draws its membership.