By Kevin Lim and Eveline Danubrata
SINGAPORE (Reuters) - Singapore government lawyers have started legal proceedings that could result in a political cartoonist serving a jail term, in another sign that the long-ruling People's Action Party (PAP) is becoming increasingly intolerant of opponents, critics said.
Chew Peng Ee, known to followers of his "Demon-cratic Singapore" site on Facebook as Leslie Chew, had committed contempt of court "by scandalizing the judiciary of the Republic of Singapore", the Attorney-General's Chambers said in a statement on Thursday.
The charges stemmed from four cartoons that Chew had published in 2011 and 2012, three of which were about the perceived unfairness of the courts when imposing punishment. His case will be heard on August 12.
Chew has already been investigated for sedition for alleging official discrimination against Singapore's ethnic Malay minority and is out on police bail, his lawyer said.
There are no prescribed penalties for contempt of court in Singapore and the judge could issue a warning or fine instead of a jail sentence. For sedition, a person could be fined up to S$5,000 ($3,900) or jailed up to three years, or both.
Prosperous, multi-racial Singapore, a key U.S. ally, has long taken a tough stand against criticism of the government. Leaders have taken legal action against critics, saying they needed to protect their reputations.
The most recent case of a critic being jailed took place in 2011 when Alan Shadrake, a British writer, was sentenced to six weeks in prison for contempt of court and scandalizing the judiciary with a book about the death penalty in Singapore.
Government spokesmen were not immediately available for comment on the case of the cartoonist.
Singapore recently introduced laws to license news websites that report regularly on the city-state, in a move seen by many as a bid to control the spread of anti-government reports and commentary via social media.
Such reports and commentaries were believed to have contributed to gains by the opposition in a general election in 2011.
"The PAP government has essentially decided it needs to tame the blogosphere and social media," said blogger Alex Au.
Au, who uses the nickname Yawning Bread, this week accused the government in a blog post of trying to re-create a "climate of fear" to silence critics.
"This change of tack is becoming clearer by the week as more and more instances arise where ministers and members of parliament go out to bash citizens trying to raise issues or comment on current affairs," he said.
Zuraidah Ibrahim, deputy editor of the pro-government Straits Times newspaper, wrote in a recent column that clashes between the PAP and the opposition Workers' Party had become more heated as Singapore reached the middle of the electoral cycle.
Both sides were trying to mobilize supporters ahead of elections that must be called by 2016, she said.
"There have been criticisms from among the party faithful that the PAP has allowed itself to be too much of a punching bag since the last general election. They want to see their leaders coming out of the corner swinging." ($1 = 1.2663 Singapore dollars)
(Reporting by Kevin Lim; Editing by Robert Birsel)