TOC defamation trial: Author of article sent unauthorised e-mails from friend's account

Terry Xu (left) and Daniel Augustin De Costa were each charged with one count of criminal defamation in December 2018.
Terry Xu (left) and Daniel Augustin De Costa were each charged with one count of criminal defamation in December 2018.ST PHOTOS: KELVIN CHNG

SINGAPORE - The criminal defamation trial of The Online Citizen (TOC) website's chief editor Terry Xu, 38, and TOC contributor Daniel Augustin De Costa, 37, began on Monday (Oct 26), over an e-mail letter penned by De Costa that allegedly defamed Cabinet members.

De Costa is said to have sent that and other inflammatory material from the e-mail account of his friend, Mr Sim Wee Lee, who took the witness stand on Monday.

In his examination of the witness, Deputy Public Prosecutor Senthilkumaran Sabapathy sought to establish that De Costa had used Mr Sim's e-mail and Facebook accounts without permission on multiple occasions since 2011.

The case involves an e-mail letter titled "PAP MP apologises to SDP" that De Costa wrote and sent to TOC from Mr Sim's Yahoo account in September 2018.

The letter stated, among other things, that there was "corruption at the highest echelons" of the People's Action Party leadership.

TOC, a sociopolitical website, then published the letter with the title "The Take Away From Seah Kian Ping's (sic) Facebook Post" and attributed it to Willy Sum, a name sometimes used by Mr Sim.

Xu and De Costa were each charged with one count of criminal defamation in December 2018 for defaming members of the Singapore Cabinet in the letter.

De Costa was also charged with an offence under the Computer Misuse Act for using Mr Sim's Yahoo e-mail account to send the letter without permission.

On Monday, Mr Sim testified that he had shared the passwords to his Yahoo and Gmail accounts with De Costa after they became friends sometime between 2005 and 2006.

He did so as he needed De Costa's help to compose and send e-mail letters on his behalf to various government officials, Mr Sim told the court through a Mandarin interpreter.

"I was very grateful to Daniel because, at the time, I was facing bankruptcy proceedings and also problems with HDB and traffic summonses issued against me," he said.

"I was bad at writing in English, so I asked him to help me pen the e-mail."

The court heard that, aside from the appeals that Mr Sim had asked De Costa to write, his e-mail accounts were also being used to send politically charged e-mail on more than 20 occasions since 2011, including complaints addressed to various politicians and government agencies, as well as letters to TOC and other websites.

The letters commented on various political matters such as the general election, MPs' exchanges in Parliament and the Oxley Road dispute between Prime Minister Lee Hsien Loong and his siblings, among other things.

Some were published in TOC under different variants of Mr Sim's name, such as "WL Sum" and "Willy Sim".

Mr Sim said the unauthorised e-mails were likely written by De Costa, as nobody else had access to his e-mail accounts.

He also testified that De Costa had asked for his Facebook password, as De Costa claimed he did not have his own Facebook account and "wanted to go in and take a look".

Although he was uneasy with handing over access to his personal Facebook profile, which bore the name Willy Sim, he allowed it as he considered De Costa a friend and did not want to offend him.

Mr Sim later discovered that his Facebook account had been used to leave comments on various articles, including some on racial issues.

The account had also been used to send private messages to other Facebook users, including a casual acquaintance that Mr Sim had met through De Costa.

"Don't know what that crazy Daniel De Costa is up to. He always has something up his sleeve to sabo what the Muslims are doing," said one message sent from Mr Sim's account.

"Sometimes afraid for his safety because this guy knows no fear. You either hate him or love him, but here in our ah beng group we really like him."

Mr Sim said the messages were likely sent by De Costa himself, as nobody else knew his Facebook password.

However, Mr Sim did not change his passwords or take other steps to prevent De Costa from using his e-mail and Facebook accounts, as his issues had not been resolved and he still needed De Costa's help.

"I was very angry because the many e-mails did not go through me. His e-mails were mostly criticising government officers and making bad comments about them," Mr Sim told the court.

"I was angry because I treated him as friend and asked him not to send messages or post anything to criticise government officers. I was also worried something might happen to him."

Mr Sim said it came as a surprise when police came knocking in November 2018 to investigate the defamation offence and confiscate his phone and computer. He then told police that De Costa was the only other person who had access to the Yahoo account used to send the defamatory letter.

In the course of the investigation, Mr Sim said he came to learn that the password to his Yahoo account had been changed in January 2017 even though he was in prison at the time for an unspecified offence and did not ask anyone to change it for him. He said he had last used the account in 2015 or 2016 and had since lost access to it.

The DPP asked how the defamation investigation had affected his life, to which Mr Sim said he had faced many difficulties in the last two years that left him feeling "on the verge of a breakdown".

He said: "I only hope this matter will come to an end soon. As for Daniel's actions, I don't know if he intentionally or unintentionally brought harm to me, but I choose to forgive him."

The trial will continue on Tuesday morning with lawyers for the defence cross-examining Mr Sim.