Singaporean police detained the chief editor of the socio-political website The Online Citizen (TOC), Terry Xu, for questioning on Tuesday over defamatory allegations made in an article on the website in September.

Xu reported to the Cantonment Police Station in the afternoon and was held for interrogation for eights hours from 3.20pm. No arrest was made and he was released just before midnight on Tuesday.

Terry Xu
Terry Xu (right), chief editor of the Online Citizen, at a public hearing in Singapore on the definitions of facts and truth. Photo: Screenshot.

Xu had his home ransacked and electronic equipment seized by five police officers on Tuesday at 10.30am, according to a post shared by Singaporean activist and lawyer Soh Lung Teo on Facebook.

TOC announced that it will be “on hiatus” as its desktops, mobile devices, and laptops were seized by Singaporean police for an investigation into criminal defamation, under Section 21 (1) of the Criminal Procedure Code Chapter 68. The Code allows police to issue a written order requiring anyone within the limits of Singapore “acquainted” with knowledge of the case to report before them.

Xu told HKFP that three computers, two tablets, two phones, and three hard disks were seized under the Code. He added that no prior notice was given before the seizure.

TOC added that no return date has been given for the items as the investigation “will take some time to conclude.”

‘Serious allegations’

Xu’s detainment is a response to a letter written by civilian Willy Sum in September titled “The take away from Seah Kian Ping’s Facebook post.”

The letter made “serious allegations that the Government’s highest officers are corrupt and that the Constitution has been tampered with,” police told Channel NewsAsia.

In the letter, Sum referred to an online post by Singaporean MP Seah Kian Peng over a meeting between several local activists and Malaysian Prime Minister Mahathir Mohamad in August.

Xu told HKFP that the letter had been removed from the website following an order from the Info-communications Media Development Authority.

The Online Citizen screenshot
Screenshot of Willy Sum’s article on The Online Citizen on Wednesday. Photo: The Online Citizen.

The platform may have become a target for a government-led crackdown on free expression, according to Kirsten Han, freelance journalist and editor-in-chief of online platform New Naratif.

“With a leadership transition underway in the People’s Action Party and rumours swirling of the general election taking place next year, there are concerns that there’ll be a clampdown on civil society and the independent media,” she told HKFP

Han added that Xu had recently been reporting on issues facing hawkers in Social Enterprise Hawker Centres, including unfair contract terms and connections between companies running the centres.

“Terry and The Online Citizen have been doggedly reporting from the ground, speaking to Singaporeans who have been affected by various events and policies,” she told HKFP.

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Phil Robertson, Deputy Asia Director of NGO Human Rights Watch, said that the police raid on Xu highlighted the government’s tightening controls on free expression in Singapore: “Seizing computers and equipment is over the top harassment that will unfairly prevent the TOC from publishing its independent stories that critically scrutinise the government,” he said.

“Singapore’s campaign of intimidation and persecution of independent media and human rights campaigners in the city state must stop now,” he added.

TOC was founded in 2006, six months after a parliamentary election saw the People’s Action Party led by Lee Hsien Loong hold the office of the Prime Minister for the twelfth consecutive term.

The country had few independent media platforms for socio-political analysis during this period, According to the outlet. 

“TOC was set up to provide readers with alternative perspectives and to cover stories ignored or under-reported by traditional media,” they said.

Singapore ranks 151 out of 180 on media watchdog Reporters Without Borders’s 2018 World Press Freedom Index, trailing behind Russia, Tajikistan, and Ethiopia.

Jennifer Creery is a Hong Kong-born British journalist, interested in minority rights and urban planning. She holds a BA in English at King's College London and has studied Mandarin at National Taiwan University.