Friday, 27 Nov 2020

TOC defamation trial: Statements repeated claims from PM Lee's siblings 'in good faith', says defence

SINGAPORE – The Online Citizen (TOC) contributor Daniel De Costa was acting in good faith when he made allegedly defamatory statements, his lawyer, Mr M. Ravi, argued in court on Friday (Oct 30).

Mr Ravi of Carson Law Chambers said his client had not been malicious and had simply repeated allegations made earlier by Prime Minister Lee Hsien Loong’s siblings – Mr Lee Hsien Yang and Dr Lee Wei Ling – while believing them to be true.

Under the law, those who express opinions about the public conduct of public servants in good faith are not guilty of defamation, he argued on the fourth day of a criminal defamation trial that has been adjourned till next month.

De Costa and TOC editor Terry Xu were both charged with criminal defamation in 2018 for allegedly defaming members of the Singapore Cabinet in a letter published on the TOC website.

“The present PAP leadership severely lacks innovation, vision and the drive to take us into the next lap,” said the letter, which was written by De Costa and published by Xu.

“We have seen multiple policy and foreign screw-ups, tampering of the Constitution, corruption at the highest echelons and apparent lack of respect from foreign powers ever since the demise of founding father Lee Kuan Yew.”

Mr Ravi said his client had simply intended to repeat what PM Lee’s siblings had alleged in a joint statement in 2017.

“In our public statement on 14 June 2017, we wrote that Lee Hsien Loong opposed our father Lee Kuan Yew’s demolition wish, that Lee Hsien Loong misused his power as prime minister, and that he hijacked the organs of state to pursue his personal goals,” Mr Ravi quoted PM Lee’s siblings as having said.

Mr Lee Hsien Yang and Dr Lee were not sued by PM Lee, nor were they investigated for criminal defamation, Mr Ravi noted.

It was therefore his client’s genuine belief, he added, that PM Lee had indeed “misused his power as prime minister” and “hijacked the organs of state” as De Costa believed PM Lee’s siblings to be credible.

Mr Ravi put forth these arguments in the course of making an application to have the prosecution disclose De Costa’s long statement made to the Criminal Investigation Department during the police investigation in 2018.

He said he needed the long statement as it was “not clear what case the prosecution is running without these documents”.

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Mr Ravi had made the same application at an earlier stage of the trial in January before District Judge Christopher Tan, who was then presiding over the case. Mr Tan has since been appointed a registrar of the State Courts and the case is now being heard by District Judge Ng Peng Hong.

On Friday, Xu’s lawyer, Mr Remy Choo of Peter Low and Choo law firm, made a similar application to have Xu’s recorded statement disclosed.

Mr Choo argued that the statement is relevant to the question of Xu’s intentions in publishing the letter and whether he deliberately published it knowing it would harm the reputation of Cabinet members.

He also said that as far as Xu can remember, he was not asked questions specifically about the Cabinet.

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A “key plank” of the defence’s case is that there was no reference to members of the Cabinet in the claim that there was “corruption at the highest echelons”, Mr Choo said, adding that an ordinary, reasonable reader of the article would not conclude that it refers to Cabinet members.

District Judge Ng dismissed the applications to have the statements disclosed, in line with former district judge Tan’s earlier decision to do the same.

During Friday’s trial, Mr Ravi and Mr Choo also questioned the investigating officer in the case, Deputy Superintendent of Police (DSP) Jonathan Au Yong, who took the witness stand.

Both lawyers noted that DSP Au Yong had filed the police report that initiated the investigation after the CID director received a letter about the offending TOC article from the Infocomm Media Development Authority (IMDA).

This is contrary to a police statement made on Dec 12, 2018, which had said the IMDA had filed the police report.

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DSP Au Yong confirmed that the IMDA did not file a formal police report, but he said it is not unconventional or improper for a police officer to file a report himself as an administrative procedure on receiving information relating to a possible crime.

The parties will return to the State Courts for a pre-trial conference on Nov 19 before the resumption of the trial.

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