TOC defamation trial: Article needed 'creative writing', editor Terry Xu told writer

The Online Citizen editor Terry Xu arriving at the High Court on Nov 30, 2020. PHOTO: ST FILE

SINGAPORE - The editor of The Online Citizen (TOC), Mr Terry Xu, last year told his writer Rubaashini Shunmuganathan to include some "creative writing" in her article that allegedly defamed Prime Minister Lee Hsien Loong.

Mr Xu, testifying on Tuesday (Dec 1), the second day of the hearing on PM Lee's libel suit against him, confirmed this during cross-examination by PM Lee's lawyer, Senior Counsel Davinder Singh.

He also confirmed that he had instructed Ms Rubaashini, a Malaysian, to write the article titled "PM Lee's wife, Ho Ching weirdly shares article on cutting ties with family members".

When Mr Xu gave the writer the assignment on the morning of Aug 15, 2019 through messages on Slack, a messaging platform for businesses, he said the piece "needs some creative writing", Mr Singh noted.

He added that Mr Xu also instructed her to add a few points to the article, which centred on an article about "toxic family members" Ms Ho had shared on Facebook.

The points included allegations by PM Lee's siblings, Mr Lee Hsien Yang and Dr Lee Wei Ling, on how PM Lee had misled their father, the late Mr Lee Kuan Yew, into thinking that his house at 38 Oxley Road had been gazetted by the Government. These were among the statements that PM Lee later complained were defamatory.

Mr Xu published the article a few hours later, after the writer added the requested points.

At the hearing, Mr Singh took Mr Xu through the various claims in the five paragraphs from the article that were allegedly defamatory. He then asked Mr Xu to explain where he got the information and what evidence he had to show the claims were true.

The basis of Mr Xu's defence was that the claims in the article were not defamatory because they were true "in substance or in fact", Mr Singh noted.

Mr Xu replied that he had mostly based the claims on statements made by Mr Lee Hsien Yang and Dr Lee in their joint public statements, as well as in Facebook posts by Dr Lee. He said he had also considered PM Lee's side of the story while coming to his own conclusions on who was telling the truth, as well as documents like e-mails that PM Lee's siblings had released with their statements.

But when pressed for the evidence for two particular lines in the article, Mr Xu could not provide any. The lines, which referred to Mr Lee Kuan Yew, Mr Lee Hsien Yang and Dr Lee by their initials, read: "However, according to Dr Lee, LKY began to doubt the truth that Oxley had been 'gazetted' in late 2013, and it was subsequently revealed to late LKY that the house wasn't gazetted.

"If that is not all, the late LKY also removed PM Lee as an executor and trustee of his will, making only the other two siblings, LHY and LWL as the executors."

Mr Singh put it to Mr Xu that this was "where the creativity came in" and that these claims went beyond merely repeating the allegations that PM Lee's siblings had put out.

"It would appear, sir, that you took the opportunity of Ms Ho Ching's article to attack (PM Lee) and say things beyond what the siblings had alleged... all the while giving the impression in your article that you were - insofar as the allegations are concerned - merely repeating what the siblings had said," Mr Singh added.

Mr Xu disagreed with the characterisation.

He also disputed that the line on PM Lee's removal as the executor meant it happened after the elder Mr Lee supposedly discovered he had been misled.

This was simply one "possible misinterpretation", Mr Xu said, adding that he later included a note in the article, after receiving PM Lee's complaint, to clarify that this was not what he meant.

This article has been edited for clarity.

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