TRS 'made $500k from ads in 17 months'

Website owner in sedition case posted inflammatory articles to profit from traffic: Prosecution

Takagi, an Australian citizen and owner and chief editor of The Real Singapore website, pleaded guilty to four charges of sedition for publishing articles that promoted ill will and hostility between Singaporeans and foreigners. Yang, her Singaporean
Takagi, an Australian citizen and owner and chief editor of The Real Singapore website, pleaded guilty to four charges of sedition for publishing articles that promoted ill will and hostility between Singaporeans and foreigners. Yang, her Singaporean husband, denies the charges and will claim trial. ST PHOTO: WONG KWAI CHOW

Going by the claims of Ai Takagi, The Real Singapore (TRS) website was nothing more than a platform for Singaporeans to express their views without fear.

But, in fact, it was a big cash cow that raked in almost half a million dollars in advertising revenue for its owners in just 17 months.

Facts about how the Australian citizen ran the news portal as an owner and chief editor emerged in court yesterday, as she pleaded guilty to four counts of sedition for publishing articles that promoted ill will and hostility between Singaporeans and foreigners.

Among the four inflammatory articles was one where she falsely stated that a Filipino family had caused a commotion between the police and participants of last year's Thaipusam procession.

Yesterday, the prosecution said that Takagi, 23, had intentionally posted these articles to drive up traffic and to profit from it. More than 95 per cent of the website's readers were from Singapore.

The court heard that TRS received more than 134 million page views in total from May 2014 to March last year, double that of the preceding year.

  • Articles that sought to promote ill-will between S'poreans, foreigners

  • TRS editor and publisher Ai Takagi, 23, was yesterday convicted of four charges of sedition in TRS articles that sought to promote ill-will and hostility between Singaporeans and foreigners. They are:

    Video: Local Singaporeans Complain of Police Brutality At Thaipusam Procession, published on Feb 4, 2015

    The article made a false claim that a Filipino family had complained about a group of Singaporeans who were playing musical instruments during the Feb 3, 2015 Thaipusam procession. It also said erroneously that the police "descended" on the group because of the complaint.

    Ai Takagi first attributed the story to a "TRS contributor", then later to "Ri Nitesha TRS Reader".

    She claimed "Ri Nitesha" was Ms Gowri Yanaseckaran, who e-mailed TRS.

    Investigations showed that though Ms Gowri did e-mail TRS, she made no mention of a Filipino family. Ms Gowri later said on her Facebook page that the article was "cooked up".

    Takagi insisted that Ms Gowri was the source of the information, but could not produce e-mails or documents to back up her claims.

    Why Some Singaporeans Feel Annoyed With Pinoys In Singapore, published on June 18, 2014

    The article quoted a Singaporean who had allegedly quit his job over the behaviour of Filipinos in his company.It made several assertions about Filipinos, such as that they often gave preferential treatment to their countrymen and were "two-faced", "relentless back stabbers".

    Takagi said the article was based on an e-mail sent to a TRS e-mail account that only she could access.

    Dear TRS, PRC Woman Makes Boy Pee Publicly In The MRT Into A Bottle, published on Feb 18, 2014

    The article said a woman from the People's Republic of China (PRC) had pulled down her grandson's pants while they were in the MRT, and had asked him to urinate into an empty drink bottle.

    Takagi claimed a TRS reader had submitted the article, and had also given the same information to Stomp, a citizen journalism website owned by Singapore Press Holdings. But the Stomp article did not say that the woman was from China.

    Takagi was not able to produce the source article allegedly submitted by the reader.

    Exposed: Puppy Murderer Works In Healthcare Industry, Her Company Hires Mostly Foreigners, published on Oct 13, 2013

    The article, purportedly about a company that hired more foreigners than Singaporeans, had carried an editor's note that said it was the objective of TRS editors to "instil fear in companies and make them think twice before hiring foreigners without really considering our Singaporean workforce".

    It was signed off by a "Farhan". But investigations showed Takagi had been using the Malay- sounding name to hide her own identity since 2013.

Deputy Public Prosecutor G. Kannan said the website used advertising services by Google and Taboola, which display advertisements alongside articles. Each time an article is viewed on the site, an advertisement is displayed and TRS would be paid for it.

Between December 2013 and April last year, the website earned over A$473,000 (S$488,000) in advertising revenue from Google alone, he said.

Despite this, Takagi had claimed that she "did not keep tabs" on the website's traffic and also did not "give much thought" to advertising revenue, said DPP Kannan.

However, he added, her online chat transcripts showed otherwise, and she had expressed her frustration when the website ran into problems that caused traffic, and advertising revenue, to fall.

On one such occasion in September 2012, she sent a slew of messages over Skype to a programmer in just six minutes, and said: "We have already repeated many times to you, this is affecting our readership and also our earnings tremendously. Seriously, when can I get this fixed?"

Takagi had also put together a presentation titled, "Advertising with The Real Singapore", in 2013, in which she said the website would work together with advertisers to produce advertorials.

During investigations, Takagi denied having a particular agenda, and said the articles she published on TRS were all based on "what people felt and submitted to her".

But DPP Kannan said an editor's note she had written made clear that the website wanted to "instil fear" in those who hired foreigners.

Takagi had also once said to a contributor that the style of writing on TRS "was one of portraying the mainstream media in Singapore as being biased", he added.

He also said Takagi was not forthcoming with her answers on various issues during investigations. In three statements recorded by the police, she had answered "not relevant" no less than 101 times, he said.

Yesterday, Takagi sat in the dock solemnly as these facts of the case were read out. Four other charges against her - three of them for sedition and one for refusing to hand over documents needed in police investigations - were taken into consideration for sentencing.

The maximum punishment under the Sedition Act is a $5,000 fine and three years' jail on each charge.

District Judge Salina Ishak adjourned sentencing submissions to March 23.

Takagi and her Singaporean husband, Yang Kaiheng, 27, were expected to face a joint trial on Monday. But before it began, she told the court she would be pleading guilty. Her husband denies the charges and will claim trial. Both are represented by lawyer Choo Zheng Xi from Peter Low LLC.

Yesterday, there was also some drama when an unknown man tried to serve a writ of summons, a document to commence a civil suit, on Yang outside the courtroom.

A witness told The Straits Times that the man threw the documents in Yang's face, after he refused to accept them. Police were later seen taking the statements of both men.

Join ST's Telegram channel and get the latest breaking news delivered to you.

A version of this article appeared in the print edition of The Straits Times on March 09, 2016, with the headline TRS 'made $500k from ads in 17 months'. Subscribe