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Court orders blogger to pay $133,000 for defaming PM Lee

Court orders blogger to pay $133,000 for defaming PM Lee

Source: Straits Times
Article Date: 25 Mar 2021
Author: Rei Kurohi

PM Lee's lawyers had argued for $150,000 in damages in the defamation suit against blogger Leong Sze Hian.

The High Court has ordered blogger and financial adviser Leong Sze Hian to pay Prime Minister Lee Hsien Loong $133,000 for defamation. The sum includes $100,000 in general damages and $33,000 in aggravated damages.

Mr Leong was sued for sharing, on his Facebook page, an article from Malaysian news site, The Coverage, that falsely linked PM Lee to the 1Malaysia Development Berhad corruption scandal in Malaysia.

Justice Aedit Abdullah said in a written judgment yesterday that Mr Leong did so "without making any inquiries as to its truth whatsoever" and displayed "reckless disregard of whether the article was true or not".

The judge ruled that Mr Leong's sharing of the article amounted to publishing it, even though he did not add captions or commentary.

Justice Aedit noted that the link to the article, along with its headline and a photo, was the only substantive content of Mr Leong's post, and it would be artificial to draw a "bright-line distinction" between the article and the post.

The judge said there did not appear to be any other plausible interpretation of the link to the article apart from Mr Leong supporting or endorsing the content in the link in some way.

He also dismissed Mr Leong's argument that the fake news law should have a direct and significant impact on defamation law.

Mr Leong had argued that in circumstances where the facts of a case might run afoul of the Protection from Online Falsehoods and Manipulation Act (Pofma), an individual should not be able to bypass the law and sue for defamation as doing so would "deny a citizen the protections built into Pofma".

But the judge said that Pofma is concerned with falsehood rather than the harm caused to reputation.

"Pofma does not provide individuals with any right or cause of action arising from a false and defamatory allegation against them. This is a key distinction," he said. "I did not see how the defendant's position on the Pofma was at all tenable."

He also dismissed Mr Leong's argument that PM Lee's lawsuit was an abuse of process.

PM Lee's lawyers had sought $150,000 in damages, in line with what was awarded in a previous defamation case involving blogger Roy Ngerng. Mr Leong's lawyer Lim Tean asked for only nominal damages of as little as $1.

While the judge agreed that the two cases were comparable, he noted that the defamatory material in Mr Ngerng's case received a far larger number of views - at least 37,223 distinct individuals.

The article shared by Mr Leong was visible to the public on his Facebook timeline for about three days, from Nov 7 to Nov 10, 2018. In that time, it attracted at least 22 reactions, five comments and 18 shares.

Justice Aedit found that the defamatory content would have been published to, at most, about 400 people in Singapore as a result of Mr Leong's post, or 20 per cent of the estimated 2,060 of Mr Leong's Facebook friends and followers based in Singapore.

But the judge said Mr Leong's case involved a more serious claim - that PM Lee was involved in cross-border misappropriation of funds belonging to the citizens of another country, in cooperation with the leader of that country.

"For that reason, I would find that despite the lower reach, an award of $100,000 in general damages was warranted."

However, he did not find the same degree of malice and aggravation as in Mr Ngerng's case, and said it would suffice to award about a third of the general damages, about $33,000, as aggravated damages.

The issue of costs will be dealt with separately, he said.

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

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