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Blogger waged campaign to get sympathy and to publicise libel: PM Lee's lawyers

Blogger waged campaign to get sympathy and to publicise libel: PM Lee's lawyers

Source: Straits Times
Article Date: 07 Oct 2020
Author: Tham Yuen-C

They say he continued to insist allegations in article were true even after taking down post.

Blogger Leong Sze Hian had continued to insist an article that falsely linked Prime Minister Lee Hsien Loong to the 1MDB scandal was true, even after he removed a Facebook post about it, PM Lee's lawyers said yesterday.

In fact, Mr Leong had insisted he did not believe the Government's rebuttals of the article, titled "Lee Hsien Loong becomes 1MDB's key investigation target".

The blogger had said there was no way the Government could possibly know if the Malaysian authorities were looking into PM Lee's role in the corruption probe.

Even after various Singapore government agencies and the authorities had discredited the claims, Mr Leong had kept the post up on his Facebook page.

Citing these actions yesterday, Mr Davinder Singh from Davinder Singh Chambers said in his opening statement to the High Court that it was clear that Mr Leong's conduct was "malicious".

Mr Singh cast doubts on Mr Leong's claim that he had never intended to republish the article and had removed it willingly and immediately, adding: "It would therefore appear that he removed the article out of self-preservation, and not out of contrition."

The article by The Coverage, a Malaysian website, had said that PM Lee was "corrupted" and had signed deals with his former Malaysian counterpart Najib Razak that were unfavourable to Malaysia "in exchange for Singapore banks' assistance in money laundering 1MDB's billions".

Mr Leong had shared it on his Facebook page on Nov 7, 2018, with his post shared by at least 18 others and attracting five comments.

Despite being aware of the Singapore Government's rebuttal of the article, Mr Leong had left the post online until Nov 10, 2018, removing it only after he received a notice from the Infocomm Media Development Authority.

Even then, he refused to apologise or undertake not to repeat the claims, and continued to insist it was not fake news, said Mr Singh.

And after being sued by PM Lee for libel, Mr Leong had taken every opportunity to draw attention to the matter on various fora, making public the legal documents on Facebook and speaking about the issue at interviews and public events, the lawyer added.

At one point, Mr Leong even paid for an advertisement to boost a Facebook post linking to The Online Citizen's article about the matter.

Describing this pattern of conduct as being particularly egregious, Mr Singh said Mr Leong had used the suit "to wage a public campaign to gain sympathy and support, and in doing so cynically drawing attention to the post and the article to keep them fresh in the minds of people in Singapore".

What made the libel worse was that "what was used as a launch pad to strike was the single largest and most sensational scandal in recent memory involving what the public in Singapore has come to associate with corruption and criminal activity, and which reportedly brought down the prime minister and government of another country", he added.

He noted that in the months before Mr Leong had shared the article, numerous media outlets had reported about the corrupt and criminal conduct linked to 1MDB.

Falsely accusing PM Lee of being involved had "gravely injured" and "brought into public scandal, odium and contempt" his character and reputation, said Mr Singh.

He also took issue with Mr Leong's use of Facebook to share the article, highlighting that the blogger had set the post to "public".

This ensured that the post would reach even those who are not on his list of 5,000 Facebook friends, said Mr Singh.

He quoted Dr Phan Tuan Quang, an associate professor at the University of Hong Kong who has taught and researched social media for more than 15 years, in estimating that the post could have appeared on the Facebook news feeds of some 11,749 users.

Dr Phan, who will take the stand today, will also speak about how this would include at the very minimum some 200 to 400 Singaporeans, many of whom could be interested in politics, since Mr Leong had proclaimed himself as a prominent government critic who writes frequently on such issues, added Mr Singh.

Mr Leong had said that he was being persecuted by PM Lee for criticising the Government, and that the defamation suit was an abuse of the legal process to scare off all other government critics.

But Mr Singh said the facts undermine this "fanciful argument", as PM Lee had never once sued him in the past despite him having written many critical articles about government policies.

Noting that Mr Leong had defamed PM Lee this time, Mr Singh said that a libel and slander of a public leader in Singapore damages not only his personal reputation, but also the reputation of Singapore, and compromises his moral authority to lead.

He is seeking substantial damages and an injunction that Mr Leong be restrained from publishing or disseminating the defamatory allegations by any means.

He added: "While anyone, including (Mr Leong), is entitled to criticise (PM Lee) or his policies, no one has the right to falsely defame."

Blogger had a reckless disregard of the truth: PM Lee

Mr Leong Sze Hian may not have known that the allegations he shared were false, but he made no attempt to ascertain the truth either way, said Prime Minister Lee Hsien Loong, taking the witness stand in the second half of yesterday's defamation hearing.

Responding to Mr Leong's lawyer, Mr Lim Tean, who had asked why PM Lee accused his client of malice when he did not know the truth, PM Lee told the High Court: "Because he didn't take the trouble to know. This is reckless disregard of the truth."

PM Lee is suing Mr Leong over a post the blogger shared on his Facebook page on Nov 7, 2018, which contained a link to an article by Malaysian news site The Coverage.

The article contained allegations that former Malaysian prime minister Najib Razak had signed "secret deals" with PM Lee in exchange for Singapore banks' help in laundering money from scandal-ridden Malaysian state fund 1Malaysia Development Berhad, or 1MDB.

Its content had been taken from the States Times Review (STR) site, owned by Singaporean Alex Tan Zhi Xiang, who lives in Australia.

During the hearing, PM Lee was also asked at several points why he chose to sue Mr Leong, instead of Mr Tan and STR or The Coverage.

Mr Lim argued Mr Leong's publication of the article was "technical and limited"; he had merely shared it on Facebook without comment.

"I disagree. Sharing is publication," PM Lee said. "What more must you do before you are counted as a publication?"

Mr Lim asked: "Can you tell the court of a single living person who has thought the worse of you because of the sharing of this article by the defendant?"

PM Lee said: "This is not the way we approach such questions. A very damaging allegation is made, published, circulated around. Either it is responded to publicly and cleared, and I vindicate my reputation, or one more drop of poison sinks in."

Mr Lim then asked if PM Lee would rather take action against the drop - referring to his client - rather than the "ocean" that was STR and The Coverage.

The drop was not Mr Leong, PM Lee replied. "The drop is each accusation against me that is not rebutted - whether Leong Sze Hian or STR or The Coverage. It's the same grave accusation."

His decision to sue Mr Leong was the best approach he found after consulting his lawyer, PM Lee said. He added that each time he does not clear his name, a little more damage is done and people will begin to wonder if there is some truth to the allegations.

The lawyer then asked if PM Lee would not have obtained better remedies had he sued Mr Tan and STR, to which PM Lee replied: "That's for me and my legal counsel to decide." Both The Coverage and STR are out of Singapore's jurisdiction, PM Lee added.

Mr Lim then charged that Mr Leong was sued because he was a staunch government critic, saying he was picked to frighten others, not to protect PM Lee's reputation.

"I did not do that," PM Lee replied, adding that Mr Leong has been "a thorn in our side in a small way for a very long time".

He noted that Mr Leong had criticised many government policies on many occasions and forums, as he is entitled to. "And our answer to that is, in the end, put it to the test, the test of the ballot. Persuade Singaporeans, see if Singaporeans support you or whether they have faith in the Government. Indeed, it was put to the test in the most recent general election a few months ago when your defendant and yourself stood in a GRC, contested in Jalan Besar GRC, and won 35 per cent of the vote. So that is the answer."

Mr Lim, who heads the Peoples Voice party, led a team that included Mr Leong in Jalan Besar GRC at the July 10 general election.

PM Lee also told the court that Mr Leong is "far from the most vocal or sharp or effective critic of the Singapore Government". There are many who are more effective than him, who have not been sued, he added.

Mr Lim replied: "You admitted that (Mr Leong) has been a thorn in the Government's side. That's why you chose to sue him."

PM Lee responded: "I've explained to you that having borne this cross for so many years, there was no reason to sue him on the basis of his criticisms. We have learnt to live with these ant bites."

Mr Lim then said that other prominent critics, such as former presidential candidate Tan Kin Lian and People's Power Party chief Goh Meng Seng, had not been sued.

He added: "The witness had not sued other opposition politicians, but chose to pick on the defendant because he's a staunch government critic. And you were trying to strike fear in the Singapore population."

PM Lee responded: "Your Honour, he flatters his client."

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


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