Blogger Leong Sze Hian ordered to pay PM Lee $133,000 for defamation over sharing of article

PM Lee's lawyers had argued for $150,000 in damages in the defamation suit against blogger Leong Sze Hian. PHOTOS: ST FILE

SINGAPORE - The High Court has ordered blogger and financial adviser Leong Sze Hian to pay Prime Minister Lee Hsien Loong $133,000 for defamation.

The sum includes $100,000 in general damages and $33,000 in aggravated damages.

Mr Leong was sued for sharing, on his Facebook page, an article from the Malaysian news site The Coverage that falsely linked PM Lee to the 1Malaysia Development Berhad (1MDB) corruption scandal in Malaysia.

Justice Aedit Abdullah said in a written judgment on Wednesday (March 24) that Mr Leong did so "without making any enquiries as to its truth whatsoever" and displayed "reckless disregard of whether the article was true or not".

Sharing an article on Facebook constitutes publication

The judge ruled that Mr Leong's sharing of the article amounted to publishing it, even though he did not add any captions or commentary.

Mr Leong had contended that he was not responsible for publishing the article, as there was no evidence anyone clicked on it as a result of him sharing it.

Justice Aedit noted that the link to the article, along with its headline and a photo, was the only substantive content of Mr Leong's Facebook post, and it would be artificial to draw a "bright-line distinction" between the article and the post.

The judge also said there did not appear to be any other plausible interpretation of the link to the article apart from Mr Leong supporting or endorsing the content in the link in some way.

"The entirety of his message in the post centred around the link to the article, and he was at the very least drawing attention to the article and providing access to it in the post," he said.

"Further, an interpretation that the defendant was endorsing the content of the article would cohere with his own self-described role as a 'staunch government critic'. This descriptor is present on... the defendant's own website."

Pofma does not alter defamation law

Justice Aedit dismissed Mr Leong's argument that the fake news law should have a direct and significant impact on defamation law.

Mr Leong had argued that in circumstances where the facts of a case might fall afoul of the Protection from Online Falsehoods and Manipulation Act (Pofma), an individual should not be able to bypass the law and sue for defamation as doing so would "deny a citizen the protections built into Pofma".

PM Lee and his lawyer, Senior Counsel Davinder Singh, had contended that Pofma is separate from and has not changed defamation law in Singapore.

Justice Aedit noted that Pofma is concerned with falsehood rather than the harm caused to reputation, and is meant to avoid or minimise the damage posed by online falsehoods to the country and its people, or public confidence in the government and its agencies.

"Pofma does not provide individuals with any right or cause of action arising from a false and defamatory allegation against them. This is a key distinction," he added.

"I did not see how the defendant's position on the Pofma was at all tenable," the judge said.

He also dismissed Mr Leong's argument that PM Lee's lawsuit was an abuse of process.

Lower reach but more serious claim compared with Roy Ngerng case

PM Lee's lawyers had sought $150,000 in damages, in line with what was awarded in a previous defamation case involving blogger Roy Ngerng.

Mr Leong's lawyer Lim Tean asked for only nominal damages of as little as $1.

While Justice Aedit agreed that the two cases were comparable, he noted that the defamatory material received a far larger number of views - at least 37,223 distinct individuals - in Mr Ngerng's case.

The article shared by Mr Leong was visible to the public on his Facebook timeline for about three days, from Nov 7 to Nov 10, 2018. In that time, it attracted at least 22 reactions, five comments and 18 shares.

Justice Aedit found that the defamatory content would have been published to at most about 400 people in Singapore as a result of Mr Leong's post, or 20 per cent of the estimated 2,060 of Mr Leong's Facebook friends and followers who were based in Singapore.

This estimate was based on figures provided by social media researcher, Dr Phan Tuan Quang from the Hong Kong University Business School, who was called by PM Lee as an expert witness in the case.

But the judge noted that Mr Leong's case involved a more serious claim - namely that PM Lee was involved in a cross-border misappropriation of funds belonging to the citizens of another country, in cooperation with the leader of that country.

"For that reason, I would find that despite the lower reach, an award of $100,000 in general damages was warranted," said the judge.

However, he did not find the same degree of malice and aggravation as in Mr Ngerng's case.

"The malice in this case, unlike in several of the other cases cited to me, did not involve a defendant wilfully posting something he knew to be false at the time of posting, nor did it involve a defendant who defiantly insisted on the truth of his libellous claims to the bitter end despite clear evidence to the contrary."

The judge said it would suffice to award roughly a third of the general damages as aggravated damages, or about $33,000, for a total of $133,000.

The issue of costs will be dealt with separately, he added.

In response to media queries, PM Lee's press secretary Chang Li Lin said the matter has been decided by the judge and the Prime Minister has nothing further to add.

On Wednesday afternoon, Mr Leong's lawyer Lim Tean called the judgment "wrong" and "deeply flawed" in a live video on Facebook.

He added that he would discuss further options with Mr Leong, such as filing an appeal.

Mr Leong said in the video that he was disappointed with the judgment, and that he has supporters helping him to raise funds to pay the damages and costs.

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