Singapore PM Gets $156,000 in Blogger Defamation Suit
(Bloomberg) -- A Singapore court awarded Prime Minister Lee Hsien Loong S$210,000 ($156,000) in combined damages in two defamation suits he brought against blogger Terry Xu and a second writer over an article published two years ago.
The High Court said in its judgment on Wednesday that Xu, the chief editor of The Online Citizen news blog “acted recklessly, with indifference to the truth and with ill-will” in publishing a story that caused adverse reactions on social media and “serious harm” to Lee’s reputation.
“The libel against Lee Hsien Loong is grave and serious,” the court judgment read. “The defamatory remarks do not merely attack his personal integrity, character and reputation, but that of the PM, and damage his moral authority to lead Singapore.”
The judgment said the courts “have consistently awarded higher damages to public leaders including political leaders, due to the greater damage done to them personally and to the reputation of the institution of which they are members.”
Singapore’s government leaders have sued and won damages in the past from opposition politicians, and some foreign media. In recent years, critics writing online blogs have been brought to court and directed to pay damages for defamation.
The country has adopted a tougher stance on misinformation posted online in recent years, including with the enactment of the Protection from Online Falsehoods and Manipulation Act. The law gives officials the power to request online platforms like Facebook Inc. to block pages if publishers don’t post a government-issued correction alongside the original article deemed to have carried a false or misleading claim that’s not in the public interest.
The court ruling was based on the Online Citizen’s article that makes reference to the family house once owned by the prime minister’s late father Lee Kuan Yew, Singapore’s first premier. The report said the younger Lee had misled his father into thinking the house had been gazetted by the government and it was therefore futile to demolish it as Lee Kuan Yew intended -- a claim Lee said is false and the court found to be malicious.
Infighting within the family became public knowledge after Prime Minister Lee’s two siblings took to social media in 2017 to air their grievances over the fate of the colonial-era bungalow in the heart of the city. Lee later addressed the issues over the house in a parliamentary debate in the same year.
The Online Citizen’s report repeated allegations made by the prime minister’s sister over the handling of the property, the court judgement showed. The article also referenced a Facebook post by Ho Ching, the wife of the prime minister, who shared an article on why it was acceptable to cut ties with toxic family members.
Lee’s press secretary initially issued a letter demanding that the publisher of The Online Citizen remove the content in three days and issue a “full and unconditional” apology, which Xu said he declined to do.
This prompted Lee to file two suits, one against Xu and another against the writer of the article, Rubaashini Shunmuganathan, who lives in Malaysia and did not appear in court. Both defendants are jointly liable for S$160,000 of the damages awarded on Wednesday.
Xu’s lawyer, Lim Tean, wrote in a Facebook post that “there is also absolutely no basis to make Terry jointly liable for the S$160,000 in damages which was awarded against the writer of the article.” He said Xu plans to raise the amount through crowdfunding, a strategy that has worked for others who have been found to defame Lee.
“The judgment has been made,” Lee’s press secretary said in a statement. “As usual, Prime Minister Lee intends to donate to charity the damages he has been awarded.”
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