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High Court dismisses blogger's bid to strike out PM's libel suit

High Court dismisses blogger's bid to strike out PM's libel suit

Source: Straits Times
Date Published: 14 Mar 2019
Author: Royston Sim

Judge also struck out his counterclaim against the PM which argued that the libel suit is an abuse of the court process.

The High Court has dismissed an application by blogger Leong Sze Hian to strike out Prime Minister Lee Hsien Loong's claim against him for defamation, meaning the case is set to go to trial.

In a written judgment issued on Tuesday, Justice Aedit Abdullah also struck out Mr Leong's counterclaim against PM Lee which argued that the libel suit is an abuse of the court process. The judge found that the countersuit did not have a "reasonable cause of action", as the legal basis it was premised on did not exist.

PM Lee had first sued Mr Leong for libel last November, over an article that he shared on his Facebook page which alleged that the Prime Minister had helped to launder money from the 1Malaysia Development Berhad (1MDB) fund.

Last December, Mr Leong filed his defence and a countersuit, stating that the defamation claim was an abuse of the court process, and that what he did - sharing the article about PM Lee - was no more than what thousands of others had done.

Lawyers for PM Lee responded by making an application in January to strike out the counterclaim.

In allowing PM Lee's application, Justice Aedit pointed to an earlier judgment by a five-judge Court of Appeal, which ruled that the abuse of court process is not recognised in Singapore law. Mr Leong's countersuit "goes against binding authority of the Court of Appeal, from which it is not possible for a court at this level to depart", the judge said.

However, Justice Aedit did not agree with PM Lee's lawyers that the counterclaim - made in the face of clear statements of law by the apex court - justified an award of indemnity costs.

"Otherwise, any attempt to challenge the law would attract indemnity costs; this would not be conducive for legal development and innovation," the judge said.

The libel suit centres on an article published by Malaysian news portal The Coverage titled "Breaking News: Singapore Lee Hsien Loong Becomes 1MDB's Key Investigation Target - Najib Signed Several Unfair Agreements With Hsien Loong In Exchange For Money Laundering", which Mr Leong shared on his Facebook page on Nov 7. The article alleged that former Malaysian prime minister Najib Razak had signed "secret deals" with PM Lee in exchange for Singapore banks' help in laundering money from 1MDB.

On Nov 10, Mr Leong took down his Facebook post, after being told to do so by regulator Infocomm Media Development Authority.

In filing the application to strike out PM Lee's claim, Mr Leong's lawyer Lim Tean said it is "scandalous, frivolous or vexatious", "may prejudice, embarrass or delay the fair trial of the action", and is "an abuse of the process of the court".

Mr Leong also contended in his defence that publication of the post was minimal, as it was online for a short time and did not feature prominently on his Facebook Timeline.

He also argued that various government representatives had responded to the post and article by Nov 8 and said it was false.

Readers would thus have known the offending words to be false and defamatory, and no damage would have been caused to PM Lee's reputation. Mr Leong also denied that he was being malicious, among other things.

In his judgment, Justice Aedit noted that PM Lee has a substantial reputation as the country's prime minister, and such reputation "may be marred even by publication of allegedly defamatory material to a small number of persons".

The judge also said he did not accept the argument that subsequent government statements debunking the post and article ensured that no damage was caused to PM Lee's reputation.

Justice Aedit said Mr Leong has not shown that PM Lee's claim is scandalous, frivolous or vexatious; that it would prejudice, embarrass or delay the fair trial of the action; or that it is otherwise an abuse of the process of the court. The judge added that the threshold to strike out a claim is high, and PM Lee's claim "is not such a clearly unsustainable one as to make it a 'plain and obvious' case for striking out".

Costs in both applications will be awarded to PM Lee, the judge ruled. The awards will be set out separately, he added.

Source: Straits Times © Singapore Press Holdings Ltd. Permission required for reproduction.

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