Ignorance may not always be bliss

Ang Peng Hwa cautions two Singaporean bloggers that their defamation lawsuit may hurt the blogosphere with unintended consequences

The Straits Times
Tuesday, July 29, 2008

By Ang Peng Hwa

The lawsuit between two of Singapore's top bloggers is alarming. It may spill over into the larger blogging community and could even backfire on the two involved.

Given that no writer or editor can be free of errors all the time, defamation suits can and do crop up. But, often, those between a media organisation and an individual can be settled quietly.

It is, however, quite another matter altogether when one content producer sues another. This may set a precedent with far-reaching consequences.

First, some background. On June 30 and July 3, in blog entries that have since been removed, Ms Wendy Cheng made in her Xiaxue blog some unfavourable remarks about Ms Dawn Yang. On July 15, Ms Yang's lawyers sent a letter to Ms Cheng demanding an apology.

The rule of thumb in defamation suits is that one sends a lawyer's letter when one is reasonably confident of winning. Accordingly, the letter and the requisite letter of apology were sent. That is, Ms Yang expected Ms Cheng to apologise using the letter her lawyer had written.

If, however, the recipient refuses to comply, it must be followed very quickly by a suit. Otherwise, the recipient can go to town waving the lawyer's letter and say: 'Look, it was an empty threat.' Well, in this case, the lawsuit has been filed.

In a blog entry dated July 22, Ms Cheng posted Ms Yang's lawyer's letters online. If the statements in question were defamatory, this blog entry would have repeated the defamation.

The law is a two-edged sword: It can cut the wielder too. To avoid being sued, would Singapore blogs have to be sanitised by lawyers? If so, how edgy can they be? And what appeal would they have if they aren't edgy?

This particular libel suit may lead to self-censorship. In which case, the biggest losers would be the biggest bloggers.

To be sure, American newspapers have sued other American newspapers in US courts. But they take care to frame the issue so as to contain any spillover effects. But the same care does not seem to have been exercised in this case.

What should Ms Yang and Ms Cheng do?

Firstly, they should try to settle the matter offline and outside the court. Who knows what legal ruling might issue from this case, potentially hurting the blogosphere? No one can go to court 100 per cent sure of victory.

Secondly, if they insist on their day in court, they should confine the issues to minimise any 'spillover' effects. For example, they should not demand that the loser must run an advertisement in all the newspapers in Singapore to apologise.

This would set a precedent for future defamation cases involving blogging. And that in turn would set a precedent for all other media.

To avoid a 'spillover' of unintended legal consequences, the two bloggers should narrow the issue down to the essential, keeping in mind that they themselves would be subject to whatever rules emerge from this suit.

Thirdly, the Xiaxue blog claims that some donors have contributed money to Ms Cheng's legal defence. This is unwise. Such donations would fuel a war where there is no knowing who might be hit by the stray bullets.

Bloggers need to be educated about the law. Ms Cheng says in her blog FAQ: 'I took media law in school (and fared quite well for [sic] it too) and I know what I can say.'

That is a bold assertion indeed when defamation law can befuddle even the most seasoned of lawyers.

Two years ago, my colleagues and I at the Wee Kim Wee School of Communication and Information conducted a workshop on the laws affecting blogging. A small group of bloggers attended the workshop. The blogosphere was apparently upset that we had even dared to suggest bloggers needed any education that might inhibit their freedom of expression.

What can we say now? Clearly, ignorance is not bliss.

The writer is chair of the Nanyang Technological University's Wee Kim Wee School of Communication and Information.