TOC defamation trial: Terry Xu and contributor found guilty of defaming Cabinet members

The Online Citizen editor Terry Xu and and site contributor Daniel De Costa Augustin arriving at the State Courts on July 26, 2021.
The Online Citizen editor Terry Xu and and site contributor Daniel De Costa Augustin arriving at the State Courts on July 26, 2021.PHOTOS: ST FILE

SINGAPORE - The Online Citizen (TOC) editor Xu Yuanchen, 39, better known as Terry Xu, and site contributor Daniel De Costa Augustin, 38, were each convicted on Friday (Nov 12) of one count of defaming Cabinet members.

District Judge Ng Peng Hong also found De Costa guilty of an offence under the Computer Misuse Act.

The cases involving the two Singaporean men have been adjourned to Dec 23 for mitigation and sentencing.

De Costa had penned a letter that defamed Cabinet members and sent it from an e-mail account of his friend, Mr Sim Wee Lee.

The letter was titled "PAP MP apologises to SDP" and sent to TOC from Mr Sim's Yahoo account in September 2018.

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

The 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 is represented by lawyers Remy Choo and Priscilla Chia. 

During the trial, Xu had argued that the phrase "corruption at the highest echelons" did not refer to individual members of the Cabinet and that he did not know the phrase harmed their reputation.

Deputy Public Prosecutors Mohamed Faizal Mohamed Abdul Kadir, Senthilkumaran Sabapathy and Sheryl Yeo, however, said in their submissions that the article alleged, among other things, that there was "corruption at the highest echelons" of the Singapore Government.

They added: "A contextual interpretation of the article makes it plain that this was an imputation relating to the members of the Cabinet of Singapore. The imputation was serious, baseless and clearly defamatory.

"Both De Costa and Xu would have known that the imputation of corruption would harm the reputation of the Cabinet. Neither of them had any cogent basis to make the allegation and it is clear that they had not acted in good faith."

Mr Sim testified in court last year that he had shared the passwords of his Yahoo and Gmail accounts with De Costa after they became friends some time 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.

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

De Costa's defence was that Mr Sim had given him access to the Yahoo Account "for all purposes".

The DPPs said that this "implausible claim" was based almost exclusively on De Costa's own testimony.

They added that evidence, including Mr Sim's "consistent and candid testimony", had proved beyond reasonable doubt that De Costa had only limited authority to use the Yahoo account to send out e-mails on Mr Sim's behalf and in relation to personal matters.

The prosecutors told the court: "De Costa clearly did not have any authority to use the Yahoo account to send out e-mails of the kind represented by the article, let alone blanket authority to use it for 'all purposes'."

De Costa is represented by lawyer M. Ravi.

TOC and its various social media channels were taken offline in September ahead of a deadline set by the Infocomm and Media Development Authority (IMDA).

This development came after IMDA had earlier suspended TOC's class licence to run its website and social media channels due to its repeated failure to comply with legal obligations to declare all sources of funding.

For defamation, an offender can be jailed for up to two years and fined.