I was speechless after reading the Straits Times’ version of the story about a protest note being lodged at the Singapore High Commission in Kuala Lumpur. It told readers about all the stuff peripheral to the main issue but said not a word about Mourthi Vasu’s demand that Singapore acknowledge with contrition committing a miscarriage of justice when his son was hanged in 2003.
The story was covered in a timely manner in The Online Citizen yesterday (10 August 2010). Headlined “I want my son’s name back”, the web story made clear that the chief issue was the way the trial of Vignes Mourthi was conducted, leading to his conviction for trafficking in 27.65g of heroin and subsequent hanging.
Below is the ‘doughnut story’ in the print edition of our main English-language newspaper — I call it ‘doughnut’ because the centre is missing. You will notice that
- the headline describes the rally as against the death penalty in general;
- it does not mention Mourthi Vasu, the father of the hanged Vignes Mourthi;
- only mentions euphemistically the accusation of miscarriage of justice, with the words “shed new light” that really tell the reader nothing;
- it commits a factual error when it wrote that Alan Shadrake “faces charges of criminal defamation and contempt of court”. This is plain incorrect. Shadarake currently faces contempt of court proceedings, but no criminal defamation charges have been filed.
- closes by asserting that Malaysia too has capital punishment for drug trafficking — a kind of “pot calling the kettle black” taunt.
Here is the story in full:
11 August 2010
NGO rally in KL against S’pore death penalty
KUALA LUMPUR: A group of activists from Malaysian non-governmental organisation Lawyers for Liberty held a protest outside the Singapore High Commission yesterday against the Republic’s death penalty, Malaysian media reported.
In a protest memorandum addressed to the Singapore High Commission, the group of about 10 activists, led by lawyer N. Surendran, requested the abolition of the death penalty and the pardoning of Malaysian Yong Vui Kong, who faces the gallows for drug trafficking, online news site Malaysiakini reported.
Yong, 22, was convicted by the High Court on Nov 14, 2008, of trafficking in 47.27g of heroin. The death penalty is mandatory for trafficking 15g or more of the drug.
The Court of Appeal turned down his appeal in May, and he has till Aug 26 to file a plea for presidential clemency.
The memorandum also demanded that the Singapore Government withdraw all charges against Alan Shadrake, the author of Once A Jolly Hangman: Singapore Justice In The Dock, for which the British writer faces charges of criminal defamation and contempt of court.
The activists and the Civil Rights Committee of the Selangor Chinese Assembly Hall submitted the memorandum to the High Commission’s first secretary, Mr Walter Chia, yesterday, in which they urged the Singapore Government to commute death sentences to imprisonment, Free Malaysia Today reported.
Mr N. Surendran also said Shadrake’s book had shed new light on the case of Malaysian M. Vignes, who was found guilty of giving 27.65g of heroin to an undercover police officer in September 2001, according to court documents. He was hanged in Changi Prison on Sept 26, 2003.
Malaysia also imposes the death penalty for drug trafficking.
Now, read for yourself the actual text of the memorandum of protest lodged with the High Commission, as obtained from The Online Citizen. Note its headline and initial few points and how they relate primarily to the question of miscarriage of justice, this constituting the weighty centre of the issue:
MEMORANDUM OF PROTEST
Wrongful execution of M’sian Vignes Mourthi and malicious prosecution of Alan Shadrake
1. On 26 September 2003, Vignes Mourthi was hanged in Changi prison for alleged drug trafficking.
2. The key testimony on which he was convicted was the evidence of one Sgt Rajkumar who arrested Vignes.
3. Alan Shadrake in his book ” The Jolly Hangman” reveals the shocking truth about the trial and conviction of Vignes. At the time Sgt Rajkumar gave the sworn testimony in court which convicted Vignes, Rajkumar was under investigation for rape, sodomy and bribery! Subsequently he was convicted of corruption and sent to prison for 15 months. Vignes was hanged by the neck until he died on the testimony of this man.
4. In a breathtakingly malcious act, Singapore police and authorities concealed this crucial fact from Vignes’ lawyer M.Ravi. Vignes went to the gallows bitterly denying to the end that he had ever trafficked in drugs. He was only 21 years old when arrested.
5. The callousness and indifference to human life by the Singapore government and judiciary is shown by the now notorious remarks of Chief Justice Yong Pung How. When asked by lawyer M.Ravi whether the innocent Vignes can be hanged due to merely procedural matters, the Chief Justice replied ” Yes, the answer is yes.”
1. On 19 July 2010, a day after Alan launched his book in Singapore, police arrested him for Criminal Defamation and Contempt of Court.
2. Alan was interrogated by police 8 to 10 hours a day despite a weak heart, and now faces trials which may may send him to prison for years. He remains resolute and has said ” I will not be cowed.” His only crime is revealing the truth to the people of Singapore and the world.
We the undersigned demand that the Singapore government:
a. acknowledges the enormous miscarriage of justice that happened in Vignes’ case;
b. clears the sullied name of Vignes Mourthi and make amends to his suffering family;
c. institute immediate reforms in the Singapore judiciary to ensure Singaporean judges appreciate and respect human life and freedom;
d. take appropriate action according to the Constitution against Chief Justice Yong Pung How ;
e. halt all pending executions in Singapore and commute death sentences to imprisonment;
f. cease immediately the malicious persecution of British author Alan Shadrake.
Signed: LAWYERS FOR LIBERTY
Civil Rights Committee KUALA LUMPUR AND SELANGOR CHINESE ASSEMBLY HALL
Next, look at this video taken at the gate to the Singapore High Commission. It’s hardly a “rally” as the Straits Times reported. Secondly, it reinforces the point that the case of Vignes Mourthi was central to the issue. You can also see the prominent position of Mourthi Vasu, the father, in the proceedings.
* * * * *
Why the doughnut? The first possible reason is the Straits Times’ fear of repeating the allegations, which Justice Quentin Loh had warned the media against on the first day’s hearing of the Shadrake case. This is censorship in all but name. Even so, good journalism will be able to report fairly despite such draconian rules. However, I believe that more than incompetent journalism was at work here from the way the chief issue (possible miscarriage of justice) was relegated to the third from last sentence.
The protest note’s key demand was qualitatively different from the peripheral demands. The latter could be presented by the newspaper as opinion versus opinion. For example, the protest wanted pending executions halted; presumably the Singapore government wants the conveyor belt to proceed at full speed. There is no absolute right or wrong answer, one view could be as valid as the other. Reporting such issues allows the Singapore government the defence of holding a valid, if contested, view.
However, the key demand over allegations of miscarriage of justice is qualitatively different in that it allows no room for relative validity. It’s an absolute question: you’re either right or wrong. Either there was miscarriage or justice or there wasn’t. It is extremely threatening to the Singapore government to box them in like that. This, in my view, explains why the newspaper chose to leave a hole in the story.
The question I have is this: Which is going onto the trashheap of history? The Straits Times, or Singapore?
The breathtakingly blatant way such a story flouts the minimum standard of journalism might initially lead one to believe that it should be the Straits Times. But I have a nagging doubt. Might our government and their cronies be right: That people can be fooled through slanted reports in government-compliant media? Thus, they knowingly do this because it works.
But if so, what kind of Singapore is this? What kind of future does a place have that can so spite the rest of the world and even its own moral conscience (if we can find it)? Is this not self-destructive behaviour? In which case, it can only be Singapore that will be cast onto the trashheap.