Singapore: Defamation award raises fears over Facebook postings

Blogger Leong Sze Hian raises S$133,000 in funds after 11 days of crowd funding on Easter Sunday, the amount ordered by the High Court for him to pay Prime Minister Lee Hsien Loong after losing the latter’s libel suit against him.

11 days of crowd funding help Blogger Leong Sze Hian raise S$133,000 in funds, the amount ordered by the High Court for him to pay Prime Minister Lee Hsien Loong after losing the libel suit against him.

By Ivan Lim
Former AJA President, Contributor to AsiaN 

SINGAPORE: A punitive damages award totalling S$133,000 granted to Prime Minister Lee Hsien Loong against a blogger in a High Court defamation verdict is being seen as holding serious implications for Singaporeans sharing posts on social media platforms, prompting a crowdfunding campaign by some 2,000 members of the public that raised an equivalent sum to help defray the cost.

Leong Sze Hian had shared on his Facebook post on November 7, 2018, an article that had linked the Singapore leader to an on-going corruption case in Malaysia.  Within 10 days of the verdict, the blogger received financial help by way of crowdfunding.

In his written verdict, Justice Aedit Abdullah faulted Mr Leong for failing to verify the veracity of the Malaysia news report in his Facebook post.

The defendant had “refused to apologize for the defamatory words,(and) malice may be made out on the facts,” the judge said.

Mr Leong had shared in his Facebook post an article by Malaysian news site The Coverage, entitled “Breaking News: Singapore’s Lee Hsien Loong Becomes 1MDB’s Key Investigation Target – Najib Signed Several Unfair Agreements With Hsien Loong In Exchange For Money Laundering”. Najib Razak was the Malaysian Prime Minister.

Mr Leong’s post had also included a photo of Mr Lee and MrNajib smiling for a selfie.

Justice Aedit said the sharing of the article amounted to publishing it though the blogger did not add any comments or captions.

The ruling on 24 March marked the end of what Mr Leong, now unemployed, described as an ordeal of “two years and four months’’.

Observers noted the financial contributions came from those who believe in supporting an underdog. Mr Leong is a financial adviser, while Mr Lee is the head of a government.

“The fact that members of the public are willing to put their money on the table speak volumes for their belief in citizens’ rights,” said Mr K. M Chang, a keen political watcher.

In his defence, Mr Leong said that on receiving a take-down notice from state agency, Infocomm Media Development Authority, he removed his Facebook post three days later – on Nov. 10, 2018. Even so, Mr Lee  sued him for carrying what the Singapore leader condemned as the article’s false and baseless allegations that “impugn and disparage” his office as prime minister in the eyes of the public.

During the cross-examination at the trial, Mr Leong’s legal counsel Lim Tean had quizzed Mr Lee as to why he had singled out the blogger for defamation instead of the Malaysian news platform.

Without directly addressing the point, Mr Lee said he decided to sue Mr Leong because he had not retracted the post nor apologise to him.

But Mr Lim Tean, who heads the Peoples Voice party, asserted that Mr Leong had been a thorn in Mr Lee’s flesh because of his sharp criticisms of government policies.

Mr Leong had addressed Speakers’ Corner rallies where he called out the government on its management of the state Central Provident Fund,  Temasek Holdings, and the Government of Singapore Investment Corporation(GIC) sovereign wealth fund as well as on housing and education policies.

Is the High Court verdict, a precedent for future online defamation cases?

Mr Lim said it would have a chilling effect on ordinary citizens exchanging and sharing information on social media.

Notwithstanding the possibility of crowdfunding support, no one would like to face the prospect of bankruptcy from the hefty defamation damages.

The judge’s ruling on the case has raised a legal poser: would those who share posts on social media open themselves to libel suits?

The issue is too important for netizens to be left unchallenged, said Mr Lim Tean during a Perspectives talk show with Mr Leong on the outcome of the defamation case.

Thus, he intends to raise the issue at a higher level if and when Mr Leong decides, within 100 days, to challenge the ruling in the Court of Appeal.

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