China parties lose online defamation suit

Two S'poreans cleared in case that underscores Net anonymity

Three Chinese construction and real estate companies and two senior executives who say they were defamed by a series of online articles accusing them of siphoning assets from China, have lost their lawsuit against two Singaporean men.

In a defamation case that underscores the anonymity that the Internet provides, the High Court found that the plaintiffs failed to prove that the two men were responsible for posting the articles and that the articles had been accessed by readers in Singapore.

The suit was brought by Qingdao Bohai Construction Group, Qingjian Group, its Singapore subsidiary Qingjian Realty, and Chinese nationals Du Bo and Yuan Hongjun. Mr Du is a director of all three companies, while Mr Yuan is the chairman of Qingdao.

They alleged that cousins Goh Teck Beng and Ng Teck Chuan were behind a series of articles, posted in 2013 on blogs, forums and websites hosted in China, Hong Kong and the United States, that accused them of embezzlement.

Some of these online articles were signed off with Mr Ng's name, identity-card number and purported e-mail address.

However, there was no electronic evidence tracing the articles to the defendants, so the person who posted them remains unidentified.

The plaintiffs also alleged that the pair were responsible for mailing two articles from Taiwanese newspapers containing similar accusations to two local banks here.

They argued that the pair had a motive to inflict "revenge" on the Qingjian group of companies.

Their uncle, Mr Goh Chin Soon, as well as Mr Goh Teck Beng himself, are directors of HuanYu (Qingdao) Development, which is embroiled in several legal disputes with the Qingjian Group over construction projects in China.

The plaintiffs relied on video and audio recordings, secretly taken when their representatives visited Mr Ng at the coffee shop where he worked. They contended that he admitted, on tape, responsibility for the articles.

But the defendants argued that the alleged admission was, at best, a "misunderstanding".

They argued Mr Ng thought he was being asked about something else - an online report his cousin had submitted directly to the official website of an anti-corruption body in China's Communist Party.

The defendants said Mr Goh had used Mr Ng's name in reporting the conduct of the Qingjian Group, Mr Du and Mr Yuan, as he went often to China and feared for his safety.

Justice Belinda Ang, in a 130-page judgment published yesterday, found Mr Ng's alleged admission to be ambiguous and, hence, unreliable.

Justice Ang did not accept that the citing of Mr Ng's name and details in the articles inferred that he and Mr Goh are responsible.

"If the defendants were out to harm the plaintiffs' reputation, it would surely be incongruous and illogical for the defendants to leave a trail by mentioning (Mr Ng's) name and particulars on the online articles," she said.

A version of this article appeared in the print edition of The Straits Times on July 27, 2016, with the headline 'China parties lose online defamation suit'. Print Edition | Subscribe