Defamation Dictators

Singapore’s reigning PAP has become notorious for his use of libel suits against opposition politicians. Others have joined the club. Dr. Mahathir, Malaysia’s strongman-turned-blogger, is now threatening to sue author Barry Wain regarding a critical biography he wrote about the ex-PM. Private companies have also used the technique. In Indonesia, a hospital sued a woman for libel after her negative comments were posted on facebook (fortunately, she won the case).

The use of law to silence critics is nothing new in Southeast Asia. Indeed, libel laws are popular because they not only discourage political activism, but also any open criticism. Active censorship is relatively costly, requiring numerous personnel to read over publications for any hint of political criticism. By contrast, a libel lawsuit targets only one critic but sends a chilling effect throughout the system (especially when the government claims large damages).

However, I’ve seen much less discussion of the jurisprudential doctrine of libel law in Southeast Asia. What exactly is libel? Does the outcome of the case depend on the power of the plaintiff, amount of damages claimed, or a combination? Most importantly, have any defendants won libel cases, and if so in what circumstances? I apologize this isn’t an area I know much about, so I invite readers to leave comments if they have insights.

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