The New York Times Co. apologized and agreed to pay $114,000 to Singaporean leaders as part of an out-of-court settlement after the International Herald Tribune ran a story on Feb. 15, 2010 that included Singapore's Prime Minister Lee Hsien Loong and his two predecessors in a list of Asian "political dynasties."
Both the author of the February 15 article, Philip Bowring, and the New York Times Co., which publishes the International Herald Tribune, agreed to pay $60,000 in Singaporean currency to Lee, as well as $50,000 to his father, former Prime Minister Lee Kuan Yew, and $50,000 to former Prime Minister Goh Chok Tong for the article, titled "All in the Family," a March 25 Associated Press (AP) story reported.
The apology, which ran March 24, said that Bowring, a regular contributor to the Herald Tribune's op-ed section, had made an agreement in 1994 with Singapore's leaders not to say or imply that Prime Minister Lee had attained his position through nepotism. "Mr. Bowring nonetheless included these two men in a list of Asian political dynasties, which may have been understood by readers to infer that the younger Mr. Lee did not achieve his position through merit," the apology said. "We wish to state clearly that this inference was not intended. We apologize to Prime Minister Lee Hsien Loong, Minister Mentor Lee Kuan Yew and former Prime Minister Goh Chok Tong for any distress or embarrassment caused by any breach of the undertaking and the article."
A March 24 New York Times story reported that Singaporean leaders have a history of threatening legal action against news organizations for language that would not be considered libelous in the United States. A March 24 Reuters report stated that in the past, Singapore's leaders have won damages or out-of-court settlements from foreign media entities, including the International Herald Tribune, The Wall Street Journal, Bloomberg News, and The Economist.
The March 24 Times story reported that the current case stemmed from a similar incident in 1994 in which Bowring wrote an article that referred to the "dynastic politics" of Singapore when Goh Chok Tong was prime minister and Lee was his deputy. In the 1994 case, the Herald Tribune paid $678,000 and published an apology after the three leaders threatened to take legal action against the publication. Bowring and the Herald Tribune also agreed not to make any more references to Singaporean nepotism, an agreement that the March 24 apology acknowledged breaching.
According to a March 26 post on the website for the Committee to Protect Journalists, Davinder Singh, the lawyer representing the Singaporean leaders, described the February 15 story as "libelous" and a breach of an earlier "undertaking with the leaders of the government of Singapore." Singh said that because The Times apologized and agreed to pay damages and costs, no suit was filed.
Stuart Karle, a former general counsel of The Wall Street Journal, said in the March 24 Times story that "[n]obody in most of the world would bat an eye" about this kind of story. But in Singapore, Karle said, there is often "the presumption that there's a hidden message" about nepotism or corruption in news coverage, and if it leads to libel charges, news organizations face "a near-certainty of losing."
In a March 29 post on Business Insider's The Wire blog, Business Insider Editor-in-Chief Henry Blodget criticized the Times Co.'s decision to pay the Singaporean leaders. "The NYT has been bludgeoned into submission," Blodget wrote, asserting that the Times Co. only paid the fine to preserve their access to Singapore's leaders. "We don't mean to be overly critical here, but we get tired of holier-than-thou mainstream media bellyaching about how only mainstream media can be trusted - when so much of the mainstream media game is granting control over coverage in exchange for access."
In an April 3 column, New York Times public editor Clark Hoyt emphasized that the 1994 agreement between Bowring and the Singaporean government applied only to the International Herald Tribune. Hoyt's column quoted New York Times Executive Editor Bill Keller as saying that "[n]obody in this company has ever told me what our reporters can write - or not write - about Singapore." Keller said The Times newsroom has no agreements with any government about what can be reported.
Andrew Rosenthal, the editor of The Times editorial page, told Hoyt the settlement did not affect his section of the paper either. "If we have something that needs to be said on the editorial or Op-Ed pages, on any subject, we will say it, clearly and honestly," Rosenthal said.
According to Hoyt's column, the Herald Tribune's only options in Singapore were to reach some kind of agreement with the government or leave. "For The Herald Tribune, the economic stakes are large: more than 10 percent of its Asian circulation is in Singapore," Hoyt wrote. "It prints papers there that are distributed throughout the region. It sells advertising to companies throughout Asia that want to reach readers in Singapore."
Hoyt also acknowledged that deference to Singapore's government was unlikely to change the government's rigid standard for libel. Hoyt's column quoted Roby Alampay, the executive director of the Southeast Asian Press Alliance, as saying that the "continuing line of major media organizations too quick to offer contrition and money is a sad sight and a persisting insult on legitimate journalism, fair commentary, free speech and the rights that Singaporeans deserve."
- RUTH DEFOSTER
SILHA RESEARCH ASSISTANT