Blogger's action caused little or no harm to PM's reputation, says defence
Blogger's lawyer says suit not proportionate or justified, seeks award of nominal damages.
Financial adviser and blogger Leong Sze Hian's sharing of an allegedly defamatory article on his Facebook page caused little or no damage to Prime Minister Lee Hsien Loong's reputation, and PM Lee should be awarded only nominal damages, Mr Leong's lawyer Lim Tean has argued.
By the time PM Lee's lawyers sent a legal letter to Mr Leong on Nov 12, 2018, Mr Leong had already removed the post, after being told to do so by the Infocomm Media Development Authority (IMDA) on Nov 9 that year, Mr Lim said in his opening statement in the High Court yesterday.
PM Lee's lawsuit against Mr Leong is not necessary, proportionate, appropriate or justified, Mr Lim added.
He noted that the article containing the allegedly defamatory statements originated from the States Times Review (STR) website and was republished on the Malaysian media site, The Coverage.
Mr Leong merely shared a link to the article on The Coverage without comment, Mr Lim said, adding that his client is neither the author, editor nor commercial publisher of the content.
The lawyer further said that Mr Leong is not seeking to defend himself against PM Lee's lawsuit by arguing on the basis that the words complained about are true.
Also, he has never challenged the assertion that the contents of the post and article are false.
"His case is - and has always been - that for (PM Lee), having regard to the position he holds and the state machinery he operates, to single out (Mr Leong) and to sue him for damages and (obtain) an injunction for libel, for merely sharing a post to an article in the circumstances set out, is wrong as a matter of law and as a matter of justice," Mr Lim's statement said.
"The claim against (Mr Leong)... is an abuse of the process of the court."
Mr Lim further argued that Mr Leong had shared the article in The Coverage on his Facebook page because he believed it to be a reputable news outlet that would not have published such an article without having taken some steps to try to verify the claims in it.
Mr Leong also considered the article's subject matter - allegations of PM Lee's involvement in the 1Malaysia Development Berhad scandal - to be in the public interest, Mr Lim said, noting that the article had referred to the claims as allegations, not facts.
Mr Leong also did not know it had originated from STR, Mr Lim added.
To show that the damage done was limited, Mr Lim said the post on Mr Leong's Facebook page was accessible for fewer than three days, between 6.16pm on Nov 7, 2018 and about 7.30am on Nov 10, 2018. In that time, it received 22 reactions, five comments and 18 shares.
Mr Lim also said there were likely to be "thousands" of other users who had shared the same article, but PM Lee is neither suing them, nor STR and The Coverage.
The lawyer added that his client had made other posts that pushed the post in question further down his feed, lowering its prominence. Mr Leong also removed the post immediately, after reading the IMDA notice instructing him to do so.
Mr Lim also contended that PM Lee had not explained his reasoning in suing Mr Leong in particular, and if he did not do so, then the libel suit is "neither a necessary nor proportionate means to protect reputation".
In the statement, Mr Lim sought to establish that PM Lee's lawsuit is an abuse of the court process and violated the Derbyshire principle in common law, which bars public bodies in Britain and other jurisdictions from suing citizens for defamation, so as not to discourage free expression.
Mr Lim said the allegations in the post and article had impugned the reputation of the Singapore Government, not PM Lee personally, and that the Prime Minister had filed the "unnecessary" lawsuit to protect the Government's integrity rather than his own in his capacity as a private citizen.
He also argued, among other things, that the fact that PM Lee can sue for libel as a private citizen while refusing to disclose documents requested by the defence, on the grounds that it would be against public interest, shows conflict of interest.
"That there is such a conflict of interest, and because (PM Lee) and the Government have the means at their disposal to address what it considers to be fake news, leads to the conclusion that public officers should not use private law proceedings to pursue claims for damages when the accusations relate to their public role and responsibilities," Mr Lim contended.
Lim Tean questions libel suit; PM Lee says he had to clear his name
There was no proper justification for Prime Minister Lee Hsien Loong to sue blogger and financial adviser Leong Sze Hian for defamation, contended Mr Leong's lawyer Lim Tean yesterday.
This was because the Government had already taken sufficient action to debunk the false allegations against it, he said.
Mr Lim, an opposition politician who heads the Peoples Voice party, pointed the High Court to statements put out by the Singapore High Commission in Malaysia, the Monetary Authority of Singapore and the Infocomm and Media Development Authority on the case, as well as remarks made in November 2018 by Law and Home Affairs Minister K. Shanmugam.
All these were widely carried in the mainstream media, he said.
The lawsuit against his client, added Mr Lim, was "really an attempt to protect the integrity of the Government and reputation of the Government, not a genuine libel action for the plaintiff to recover his reputation".
PM Lee had sued 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.
Mr Lim began the four-day hearing, presided over by Justice Aedit Abdullah, by going through various media reports of statements made by the authorities on the case. These media outlets were all "prominent and influential" in Singapore, and the statements would have been read by many Singaporeans, he said.
Mr Lim said the government statements had been effective in debunking the false allegations, and PM Lee might have been entitled to sue, but not justified in doing so.
PM Lee replied: "We went to the best of our ability to rebut as strongly as we could."
The government statements, he said, "had an impact but they didn't answer one question: What is Lee Hsien Loong doing to clear his name?"
Government actions do not obviate the need for him to take private civil action, he added.
PM Lee said he had to act, adding: "In previous cases, where there is justification, I have sued."
Mr Lim also asked PM Lee if he was "riding two horses" by taking action as head of government and as a private citizen.
"I don't accept that," PM Lee replied. "As PM, I am responsible for the operation of government and to make sure it protects its reputation. But at the same time, as a private citizen, I have to protect my reputation and integrity and I have a responsibility to do so."
Mr Lim then pointed out that PM Lee sued Mr Leong on Nov 12, several days after the authorities issued their statements.
PM Lee said his lawyer's letter to Mr Leong was issued after the various agencies put up statements, but his instructions to his lawyer Davinder Singh were made before that.
"Whether there were statements by the Government were irrelevant to my decision to sue the defendant. Does he take down, apologise and commit not to repeat? He had not at the time I decided to sue," he added.
Linette Lai and Rei Kurohi
Source: Straits Times © Singapore Press Holdings Ltd. Permission required for reproduction.