Blogger ordered to pay Singapore PM $99,000 in defamation case

Lee Hsien Loong sued the blogger over an article shared on Facebook that he removed after three days at the government’s request.

Financial adviser and blogger Leong Sze Hian, right, has ben ordered to pay damages of nearly $99,000 to Singapore Prime Minister Lee Hsien Loong for defamation in a Facebook post [File: Edgar Su/Reuters]

Singapore’s high court has ordered a blogger to pay Prime Minister Lee Hsien Loong 133,000 Singapore dollars ($98,825) in damages in a defamation case filed by the island’s leader, according to a judgement released on Wednesday.

Lee sued Leong Sze Hian, a financial adviser, in November 2018 after he shared – without comment – an article from a Malaysian website on Facebook that linked the prime minister to the financial scandal at Malaysia’s state fund 1MDB.

Lee’s lawyers argued the alleged links were “false and baseless” and Leong deleted the post within three days of sharing it, complying with a government request. Lee filed the defamation case 10 days later.

The court held that Leong had shared the link with “reckless disregard of whether the article was true or not” with Judge Aedit Abdullah saying he did not find that Leong “can reasonably claim that the defamatory words did not impugn” Lee’s character because the article had suggested that the prime minister was, at the very least, involved in serious and dishonest criminal activity.

The International Commission of Jurists said the decision would further shrink the online space for freedom of expression.

“The judgment imposes an exorbitant fine on Leong for merely sharing a link on Facebook, effectively punishing him for exercising his right to free expression online,” Ian Seiderman, the ICJ’s Legal and Policy Director said in a statement.

“International human rights law and standards are clear that individuals must not be sanctioned with defamation actions over comments about public figures, save in very exceptional circumstances where the person did so maliciously and knowing that the information expressed was factually false.”

A total of 45 people responded to Leong’s post, for which the privacy settings were set to public, the judge said.

Singapore’s PM Lee Hsien Loong arrives at the High Court for the defamation hearing against blogger Leong Sze Hian in October last year [Edgar Su/Reuters]

Leong previously said he had shared the article without adding any comments or changing the content.

The prime minister’s press secretary said the matter had been decided by the judge and Lee had nothing further to add.

Leong said while he was glad the court ordeal was over, he was disappointed. He said he would seek legal advice over the judgement, as well as listen to the views of other Singaporeans.

Lee, 69, is no stranger to seeking to protect his reputation via legal channels.

Senior figures in the People’s Action Party, which has governed the city-state without interruption since independence in 1965, have previously sued foreign media, political opponents and online commentators for defamation.

In December 2015, blogger Roy Ngerng was ordered to pay $150,000 in damages to Lee for a blog post questioning the government’s management of the Central Provident Fund (CPF), a state-run compulsory pension scheme.

Source: Al Jazeera, Reuters