Reporters Without Borders (RSF) calls on Singapore’s authorities to stop trying to intimidate The Online Citizen (TOC), a community news website that is being harassed by the interior minister over its coverage of a Singaporean teenager’s suicide in January after interrogation by the police.
RSF is very concerned about the procedures initiated against this participative site, which could result in its permanent closure. Benjamin Lim, 14, took his own life on 26 January, a few hours after being interrogated by police officers on suspicion of having sexually molested an 11-year-old girl. The Online Citizen has being covering the case in detail from the outset, posting a new story almost every day. TOC has repeatedly asked the police and interior minister M. K Shanmugam why five police officers questioned the 14-year-old in the absence of a parent or guardian and why they refused to let his mother see him during the interrogation. In a statement in parliament on 1 March, Shanmugam (who is also justice minster) accused TOC of “a planned, orchestrated campaign, using falsehoods” and of suggesting that “the police were lying to Singaporeans.” “We firmly condemn the baseless accusations that the interior minister made before Singapore’s parliamentarians,” said Benjamin Ismaïl, the head of RSF’s Asia-Pacific desk. “How can you talk of a planned campaign when this collaborative website has just tried to shed light on this case and, in so doing, has reflected the diverse and spontaneous opinions of members of the public? If the officials contacted by The Online Citizen had answered its questions, it could have reported how they view the case. We caution the authorities against any attempt to prosecute the website.” In a public statement on 29 February, Lim’s father thanked The Online Citizen for its constant coverage of the case. “If not for social media, especially TOC, the case would have died down a long time ago,” he said. This show of support came after TOC was targeted by several procedures designed to persuade it to stop criticizing the authorities. After an article was posted on the site in January 2015 in which an inventor accused the defence ministry of violating a patent, TOC was ordered to withdraw the article under the Protection from Harassment Act. A Singapore court ruled in December that recourse to this law by a government department was invalid. The defence ministry has appealed against the ruling. On 4 March, the Media Development Authority (MDA) ordered The Opinion Collaborative Ltd (TOCL), under which TOC was previously operating, to return the 5,000 dollars (3,200 euros) it received from a foreign organization, the Monsoons Book Club, in April 2015. The MDA said TOCL was only allowed to take money from commercial advertisers. However, as its name suggests, the Monsoons Book Club is a non-profit organization. The Online Citizen is one of the last refuges for citizen reporting in this island-state dominated by self-censorship. Singapore is ranked 153rd out of 180 countries in RSF’s 2015 World Press Freedom Index.