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Jail term reduced to fine for TOC editor and contributor who defamed Cabinet members

Jail term reduced to fine for TOC editor and contributor who defamed Cabinet members

Source: Straits Times
Article Date: 05 May 2023
Author: Selina Lum

High Court says three weeks' jail sentence is manifestly excessive.

The chief editor of The Online Citizen (TOC) and a contributor to the sociopolitical website, who each got three weeks’ jail in 2022 for defaming members of the Cabinet, had their sentences reduced to a fine by the High Court on Thursday.

The contributor, Daniel De Costa Augustin, was instead fined $10,000, while editor Terry Xu was fined $8,000. The reduction in their sentences came after an appeal by the two men.

De Costa, who was also sentenced to three months’ jail for unauthorised use of an e-mail account, was allowed to start serving the prison term in four weeks’ time.

Xu, who has relocated to Taiwan, had chosen to serve his original jail term, even while he pursued an appeal. A further hearing will be held to work out the consequences of the sentencing decision.

De Costa had written a letter titled “PAP MP apologises to SDP”, which he sent to TOC from the e-mail account of his friend, Mr Sim Wee Lee, on Sept 4, 2018. He signed off as “Willy Sum”, a name sometimes used by Mr Sim.

On the same day, Xu published the letter, which contained the phrase “corruption at the highest echelons”, on the TOC website.

The letter referred to an apology by People’s Action Party (PAP) MP Seah Kian Peng for associating former political detainee Teo Soh Lung with the Singapore Democratic Party (SDP) in a Facebook post.

The letter was taken down on Sept 18, 2018, after the Infocomm Media Development Authority (IMDA) directed Xu to do so.

Xu and De Costa were each charged with one count of criminal defamation for making or publishing an imputation that would harm the reputation of members of the Cabinet.

De Costa was also charged under the Computer Misuse Act for unauthorised use of Mr Sim’s e-mail account to send the letter.

During their trial, the pair disputed the interpretation of what the phrase “corruption at the highest echelons” was referring to.

The prosecution noted that the first sentence of the paragraph in question alleged that the “present PAP leadership severely lacks innovation, vision and the drive to take us into the next lap”, while the second sentence gave illustrations of the alleged shortcomings.

The disputed phrase, which followed the illustrations, was thus similarly an imputation concerning members of the Cabinet, prosecutors argued.

The pair argued that the phrase did not refer to members of the Cabinet.

Xu said he understood the phrase to be referring to the Oxley Road dispute, which involved disagreements between Prime Minister Lee Hsien Loong and his two siblings over the status of the home of founding prime minister Lee Kuan Yew.

De Costa said the phrase referred to elite members of society.

Both men were found guilty by a district judge in November 2021 and sentenced in April 2022.

On Thursday, Justice Aedit Abdullah upheld their convictions for the criminal defamation, but concluded that three weeks’ jail was manifestly excessive. 

He said an ordinary and reasonable person would have read the paragraph as imputing that “corruption at the highest echelons” arose under the watch of the Cabinet members, and not that the Cabinet members themselves were corrupt.

The allegation of incompetence, while harming the reputation of the members of the Cabinet, stops short of attacking their integrity, said Justice Abdullah.

“The imputation that was made out was that the Cabinet members, through their incompetence, had allowed corruption to infect the establishment or the elite in Singapore.

“This was a less venal attack on integrity and credit than one alleging personal corruption on the part of the Cabinet, and should be reflected in a lower sentence,” he said.

The judge also gave credit to Xu for complying with IMDA’s instructions to take down the article.

Source: Straits Times © SPH Media Limited. Permission required for reproduction.


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