TOC defamation trial: Defence says contributor was acting 'in good faith'

The Online Citizen (TOC) contributor Daniel De Costa was acting in good faith when he made allegedly defamatory statements, his lawyer M. Ravi argued in court yesterday.

Mr Ravi, who is from Carson Law Chambers, said his client had not been malicious and had simply repeated allegations made earlier by Prime Minister Lee Hsien Loong's siblings - Mr Lee Hsien Yang and Dr Lee Wei Ling - while believing them to be true.

Under the law, those who express opinions about the public conduct of public servants in good faith are not guilty of defamation, he argued on the fourth day of a criminal defamation trial that has been adjourned till next month.

De Costa and TOC editor Terry Xu were both charged in 2018 for allegedly defaming members of the Singapore Cabinet in a letter published on the TOC website.

"The present PAP leadership severely lacks innovation, vision and the drive to take us into the next lap," said the letter, which was written by De Costa and published by Xu. "We have seen multiple policy and foreign screw-ups, tampering of the Constitution, corruption at the highest echelons and apparent lack of respect from foreign powers ever since the demise of founding father Lee Kuan Yew."

Mr Ravi said his client had simply intended to repeat what PM Lee's siblings had alleged in a joint statement in 2017.

Mr Lee Hsien Yang and Dr Lee were not sued by PM Lee, nor were they investigated for criminal defamation, Mr Ravi noted.

It was therefore his client's genuine belief, he added, that PM Lee had indeed "misused his power as prime minister" and "hijacked the organs of state" as PM Lee's siblings had claimed, and De Costa believed them to be credible.

Mr Ravi put forth these arguments in the course of making an application to have the prosecution disclose De Costa's long statement made to the Criminal Investigation Department during the police investigation in 2018.

Mr Ravi had made the same application at an earlier stage of the trial in January before District Judge Christopher Tan, who was then presiding over the case. Mr Tan has since been appointed a Registrar of the State Courts and the case is now being heard by District Judge Ng Peng Hong.

Yesterday, Xu's lawyer, Mr Remy Choo of Peter Low and Choo law firm, made a similar application to have Xu's recorded statement disclosed. He argued that the statement is relevant to the question of Xu's intentions in publishing the letter and whether he deliberately did so knowing it would harm the reputation of Cabinet members.

A "key plank" of the defence's case is that there was no reference to members of the Cabinet in the claim that there was "corruption at the highest echelons", Mr Choo said, adding that an ordinary, reasonable reader of the article would not conclude that it refers to Cabinet members.

District Judge Ng dismissed the applications to have the statements disclosed, in line with District Judge Tan's earlier decision to do the same.

The parties will return to the State Courts for a pre-trial conference on Nov 19 before the resumption of the trial.

A version of this article appeared in the print edition of The Straits Times on October 31, 2020, with the headline 'TOC defamation trial: Defence says contributor was acting 'in good faith''. Print Edition | Subscribe