Clarification: This story has been updated to clarify the total amount awarded was $210,000
SINGAPORE — Prime Minister Lee Hsien Loong was awarded a total of $210,000 in damages in his defamation suit against The Online Citizen (TOC) editor Terry Xu Yuanchen and his writer, Rubaashini Shunmuganathan.
In a judgment issued on Wednesday (1 September), Justice Audrey Lim also issued an injunction restraining Xu from further publishing or disseminating the false and defamatory allegations in TOC's 2019 article about 38 Oxley Road. The article was still accessible as of 2.30pm on Wednesday.
Following the judgment, Lee's press secretary said that he intends to donate to charity the damages he has been awarded.
Xu's lawyer Lim Tean said in a Facebook post, "We are very disappointed with the judgment and I am discussing with Terry on the next course of action.
"It is evident to me from a quick read of the 60-page judgment that the judge did not consider or understand the import of many relevant pieces of evidence which we put forward in the trial, which would have proven Terry’s defence," he added. Xu will crowd-fund to pay for the damages.
The article published on TOC’s website and Facebook page on 15 August 2019 was titled “PM Lee’s wife, Ho Ching weirdly shares article on cutting ties with family members”. It was written by Rubaashini, whom Lee also sought aggravated damages against in a separate suit. He was awarded $160,000 for this suit against Ruubashini and Xu, who were found jointly liable.
For the suit that was solely against Xu, Lee was awarded $210,000, comprising $160,000 in general damages and $50,000 in aggravated damages.
Justice Lim said the publication of the article was "a joint enterprise" between Xu and Ruubashini in that Xu gave the writer instructions on what to write and Ruubashini drafted the article based on the instructions and Xu published it. Ruubashini would also have know that the article was to be published on the TOC website as its writer.
"As such, the factors that I considered in assessing damages against Xu should likewise be considered when assessing damages against RS," she added
TOC’s article repeated allegations made by Lee’s siblings, Lee Hsien Yang and Dr Lee Wei Ling, published on their personal Facebook pages between 14 June 2017 and 15 August last year,
It suggested that after it was revealed to the late prime minister Lee Kuan Yew in end 2013 that the Singapore government had not gazetted the 38 Oxley Road property, he removed Lee – who is his eldest son – as an executor and trustee of his will. Lee's lawyers, Senior Counsel Davinder Singh and Pardeep Singh Khosa, also argued that the article contained other false and baseless allegations including Lee misleading the late Lee into thinking that 38 Oxley Road had been gazetted by the government, causing him to change his will to bestow the house to him.
Lee had sought aggravated damages over the article, which he said had caused him to be “gravely injured in his character and reputation” and brought into “public scandal, odium and contempt”.
Justice Lim accepted that Xu’s allegations impugned Lee's reputation and character by alleging that he was dishonest.
"This struck at the heart of (Lee's) personal integrity and could severely undermine his credibility, not just personally but also as the PM, and call into question his fitness to govern with integrity," she said.
She also compared the case against other previous suits, saying that it was not on the same scale of more serious allegations of corruption and abuse of power, criminal conduct, or misleading the public on public funds.
"Xu’s allegations against (Lee), whilst they would have undermined (Lee's) credibility and character as PM, relate primarily to a family feud regarding LKY’s property, and not, for instance, to misconduct in his capacity as a public officer pertaining to public funds or serious criminal conduct such as being complicit in taking a life."
The judge noted that while the allegations against Lee had been widely published, it did not prove that Xu's article did not further damage Lee's reputation.
"By repeating the allegations (and adding his own), Xu magnified the reach of the allegations, and further added the weight of his own authority to them. Hence, the publication of the article had damaged LHL’s integrity and undermined his reputation and standing."
The article had been further republished and/or shared on the internet on various blogs by TOC's "friends" or "followers".
Justice Lim also described Xu as "reckless and indifferent to the truth".
"When Xu published the article, he knew that the public was already aware of the Lee family dispute, that the siblings had made allegations against (Lee), and that (Lee) had responded to state that the allegations were false, and hence that there were two sides to the story."
Xu had not bothered to check the article for veracity, even as Ruubashini took less than four hours to draft it, Justice Lim said, He also instructed Ruubashini to do some "creative writing" containing one-sided allegations against Lee and uploaded the draft within 10 minutes of receiving it without making any edits, she added.
"A publisher of such grave allegations should exercise due diligence and responsibility in verifying the veracity of the facts and assertions in the Article. This is all the more so as Xu is the Chief Editor of TOC, which holds itself out as a news organisation."
Xu had admitted there was no urgency in publishing the article regarding the Lee family feud, which happened two years earlier and was known to the public, she added. Further, Xu had not approached the siblings to verify their allegations.
These instances showed Xu's "ill-will" towards Lee, aggravating the injury against him, said Justice Lim.
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