SINGAPORE - The Online Citizen (TOC) chief editor Terry Xu was "reckless and irresponsible" in publishing serious one-sided allegations about Prime Minister Lee Hsien Loong without caring whether they were true or not, the High Court said.
This was one of the reasons considered by Justice Audrey Lim in ordering Mr Xu to pay aggravated damages of $50,000 for defaming PM Lee.
Another aggravation that the judge considered was Mr Xu's conduct in using social media and news platforms to publicise the defamation suit against him, running a "climate of fear" narrative that PM Lee was using his resources to intimidate and silence his opponents.
In defamation suits, aggravated damages may be awarded in cases where the defendant's conduct before and during trial has aggravated the hurt to the plaintiff.
PM Lee had sued Mr Xu for defaming him in an article published on the TOC website on Aug 15, 2019, titled "PM Lee's wife, Ho Ching weirdly shares article on cutting ties with family members".
The article was published a day after Ms Ho shared an article, titled "Here's why sometimes it is okay to cut ties with toxic family members", on her Facebook page.
Mr Xu had told TOC contributor Rubaashini Shunmuganathan that he needed some "creative writing" on Ms Ho's post and gave the writer some pointers.
Mr Xu had spent less than 10 minutes on Ms Rubaashini's draft before uploading the article without making any edits.
The article quoted a Facebook post by PM Lee's sister, Dr Lee Wei Ling, alleging that he had misled their father, founding prime minister Lee Kuan Yew, into thinking that the family house at 38 Oxley Road had been gazetted by the Government.
Mr Xu had told Ms Rubaashini to include the one-sided allegations, without asking her to include PM Lee's response, which was set out in a ministerial statement in July 2017.
"Overall, I find that Xu had acted recklessly, with indifference to the truth and with ill will towards (PM Lee), which aggravated the injury to (PM Lee)," said Justice Lim in a judgment released on Wednesday (Sept 1).
The Prime Minister's Office sent a letter to Mr Xu on Sept 1, 2019, asking for the article to be taken down and for an apology. Mr Xu refused to apologise.
After PM Lee sued him for defamation, Mr Xu stated on his Facebook page that "it has begun", with a smiley face emoji.
Mr Xu admitted in cross-examination that he intended to continue to convey to his readers that PM Lee's suit was yet another attempt to stoke a "climate of fear".
In a Facebook post on Sept 10, 2019, Mr Xu stated that he did not have resources like "the world's highest paid politician" and that he would stand his ground against such "uncalled-for intimidation".
Justice Lim said there would have been nothing wrong if Mr Xu had reported about the suit in a neutral fashion.
But Mr Xu's conduct was calculated to portray PM Lee in a bad light and impugn his motive for bringing the suit, said the judge.
Justice Lim also noted that after the article was published, Mr Xu had obtained various documents that would have alerted him to the fact that the allegations made in it were baseless.
"Hence, about two months before the trial commenced, he would have known that the documents did not support his case," the judge said.
"The recklessness of Xu's justification defence is made even more apparent by the fact that his case was based on speculation, and he could have subpoenaed (PM Lee's brother Lee Hsien Yang) and (Dr Lee Wei Ling) to testify on the matter but he did not."
Even during the trial, Mr Xu implied that PM Lee would use his position of power to influence government bodies to take action against him, said the judge.
"This allegation was again, baseless. Xu had thus used the courtroom as a platform to cast further aspersions on (PM Lee's) character," the judge added.