The interesting bit is the MICA requirement that FEER "must have a legal representative in the country". This probably means that FEER is required to appoint what lawyers call a "process agent" in Singapore.
Singapore cracks down on foreign media
The Far Eastern Economic Review has become the latest foreign publication to be targeted by the Singapore authorities. It has been given until 11 September to comply with an Act which demands that it must have a legal representative in the country and pay a deposit of £67,500. Four other publications - the International Herald Tribune, the Financial Times, Time and Newsweek - have also been ordered to do the same when their licences come up for renewal.
A Singapore government spokesman says its position is that "it is a privilege, and not a right, for foreign newspapers to circulate in Singapore". Reporters Without Borders, the press watchdog, says that the rules are really a form of censorship. Singapore is ranked 140th out of 167 countries in RWB's 2005 worldwide press freedom index. (Via Reporters sans frontières - ASIA)
What's the significance of having a process agent in Singapore? Well, it's one of those rather technical legal/ procedural matters. The basic idea is that it enables the Singapore government to sue FEER .... in the Singapore courts.
Suppose FEER had no process agent in Singapore and no registered office here. If FEER then published an article which the Singapore government didn't like, it wouldn't be so easy for the government to start legal proceedings against FEER in Singapore. For various technical reasons, FEER may simply choose not to show up in court.
So our government may instead have to go to Hong Kong (where FEER's head office is located) and try to sue FEER there. And the HK courts may or may not be anywhere as sympathetic to the Singapore government's case as the courts of Singapore might possibly be (I pick and choose my words carefully here - you think about it for yourself, hor).
Now, if FEER does want to sell in Singapore and does obey MICA's requirement to appoint a process agent in Singapore, what's the effect? Effectively FEER is saying, "I agree to be sued in Singapore." If the Singapore government then sues FEER in Singapore, FEER has no choice but to show up to defend itself here. If FEER does not show up, it will automatically lose its case.
After which the Singapore government will go to the HK courts, wave the court order and make FEER pay up. Under this approach, it is generally not open to the HK courts to examine the substantive merits of the case. That's because FEER had already earlier agreed to be sued in Singapore. In other words, the HK courts will just accept the Singapore court order as correct and valid. It will not consider whether the FEER article in question was really defamatory.
Let's pause now to examine the wider implications of the Singapore government using this "process agent" method to tackle foreign media in Singapore.
1. If a foreign newspaper wants to sell in Singapore, it has to appoint a process agent here.
2. If it appoints a process agent here, it has to bear in mind the possibility of being sued by the Singapore government, for defamation, in the Singapore courts.
3. Thus whenever it publishes any article, it has to consider whether the article is "defamatory" of the Singapore government.
4. Let's say that more precisely. The foreign newspaper has to consider whether the Singapore courts would regard the article as "defamatory" of the Singapore government.
Not what you or me or the man in the street would regard as "defamatory" ... not what a Hong Kong judge or an English judge or a Thai judge would regard as "defamatory" .... but what the Singapore courts would regard as "defamatory" of the Singapore government. There are some potentially scary implications here, because we can expect the chilling effect to kick in once again.
Also, I can't help but think of Archie Ong and Piragasam Singaravelu. Remember them? Many years ago, they accused ex-National Kidney Foundation CEO TT Durai, of financial wrongdoing and improprieties. TT Durai took them to court and successfully sued their pants off for defamation.
But now we know who was right and who was wrong. Don't we?
Poor Archie. Poor Piragasam. No one's returning a cent to them now. I hope their sad stories will at least make Singaporean think twice about whether defamation is always really defamation ... or whether sometimes, it's just the truth.
Technorati: Singapore; law; FEER; media;defamation.