Defamation / Reputation
Johnson v. Steele
Closed Contracts Expression
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Roy Ngerng, a blogger, was found guilty for a blogpost that had allegedly defamed the Prime Minister Lee Hsien Loong of Singapore. On December 17, 2015, the Supreme Court ordered Ngerng to pay the PM S$150,000 in damages. The Court in this case determined that the right to sue for defamation overruled the defendant’s right to freedom of speech. Even though the plaintiff was a public figure and the defendant was discussing a matter of public concern, the Court still ruled that the plaintiff’s cause of action for defamation was allowed.
Some of the information in this report was derived from secondary sources.
The Prime Minister of Singapore, Lee Hsien Loong, sued blogger Roy Ngerng Yi Ling for defamation on May 29, 2014, after he blogged about the PM misappropriating funds. The blog entitled “Where Your CPF Money is Going: Learning from the City Harvest Trial” was posted on Ngerng’s personal blog, The Heart Truths, on May 15, 2014. In the post, Ngerng posted a chart that illustrated the relationship between the PM, the Central Provident Fund (CPF), the Monetary Authority of Singapore (MAS), Temasek Holdings, and the Government of Singapore Investment Corporation (GIC). The chart was compared to another chart created by Channel News Asia, a news agency based in Singapore, on the relationships of the City Harvest Church leaders who, at that time, were charged with misusing church funds.
On June 17, 2014, a well-known human rights lawyer in Singapore, M Ravi, filed a defense in court as Ngerng’s legal representative. He stated that Ngerng never intended to accuse the PM of criminal misappropriation of CPF funds. Previously, on May 18, Lee Hsien Loong demanded Ngerng to remove the disputed blogpost, to publicly apologize to him, and to write him with an offer of damages and costs. Ngerng removed the post on May 19 and made a public apology on May 23. On the day the post was removed, Ngerng stated that his intention was to call for greater transparency of the CPF, the GIC, and Temasek Holdings. He offered S$5,000 in damages and wrote another blogpost on the day the offending post was removed, entitled “Your CPF: The Complete Truth and Nothing but the Truth.”
The PM stated that Ngerng’s actions were not sincere and refused to accept the offer. He asked for aggravated damages, stating that Ngerng failed to remove a YouTube video. The PM also sent emails to media both local and international asking them not to republish the disputed post. M Ravi stated that the aggravated damages were up to the court and that the PM’s actions were intended to prevent Ngerng from “expressing his views on the CPF and to impose an unwarranted and unnecessary restriction upon his constitutional rights, as a citizen of Singapore, to freedom of speech and expression.” He also added that the PM had to prove that he had been strongly affected by the allegation. A human rights organization in Singapore, Maruah, also commented on the matter: “A healthy and engaged society calls for diverse, independent voices who will need to the space to express their views and face sharp rebuttals if their views are found wanting or even false.” It added,“Mr. Ngerng’s articles can be and ought to be refuted by the Prime Minister for any misinformation or lapses in communication.”
On November 7, 2014, the High Court of Singapore ruled that Ngerng was guilty of defamation with damages to be assessed. The case is the first defamation case in Singapore that is purely about an online article. The High Court Judge Lee Seiu Kin ruled that “there is no doubt that it is defamatory to suggest that the plaintiff is guilty of criminal misappropriation.”
On December 17, 2015, Ngerng was ordered by the Supreme Court to pay S$150,000 in damages to the Prime Minister for defamation. The amount is a result of S$100,000 for general damages and S$50,000 in aggravated damages.
Regarding the decision of the Supreme Court on December 17, 2015, when Ngerng was ordered to pay S$150,000, the judge stated that allegations of corrupt and criminal conduct could have severe consequences, especially when it occurred to the country’s leader. The verdict read, “In the present case, the allegations that the plaintiff had criminally misappropriated monies paid by citizens to a state-administered pension fund was one of the gravest that could be made against any individual, let alone a head of Government. It struck at the heart of one’s personal integrity and severely undermined the credibility of the target, and was grave defamation that a fair-minded person would react with indignation.”
Justice Lee also added, “Public leaders in Singapore hold positions of trust and confidence and their reputations are vital to their ability to lead and to be given the mandate to govern.” He noted that, even though Ngerng had apologized to the PM, it could still be concluded from subsequent articles and emails that he did not regret what he did. Ngerng’s conduct was concluded to be “malicious”. According to the Judge, Ngerng had known that his post was false and injurious to the PM, yet he still published it.
Another line of the ruling read, “It was likely that the defendant had cynically defamed the plaintiff in order to increase viewership of the blog,” The judge stated the popularity of the blog and Ngerng’s “portrayal of himself as the voice of truth were not indicative of his standing amongst Singaporeans.” He added that there was “no evidence of his perceived credibility or the influence he actually wielded,” so his standing warranted a lower award of damages. To illucidate the holding, the Judge made the following comparison: “The words of a disheveled tramp in a street corner would be far less capable of causing damage than that of the CEO of a multi-national company.”
Previously, Ngerng was ordered to pay the PM only S$29,000 for legal fees and related costs. He was also ordered by the court not to publish any statements that the PM was misappropriating CPF monies.
There were three main issues before the Court: “whether the Disputed Words and Images, in the natural and ordinary meaning, are defamatory of the plaintiff; whether the defendant has any defense to the plaintiff’s claim in defamation; and whether the plaintiff is entitled to an injunction.”
First, the Court looked at whether the disputed words and images, in their natural and ordinary meaning were defamatory of plaintiff. The Court noted the pivotal role of the reasonable person in answering this inquiry. A reasonable person would be “affected and shaped by what is common knowledge in the public domain.” There is no doubt that the controversy in this case involved matters in the public domain – and within the knowledge of the reasonable person when the defamatory article was published. The Court then examined the “natural and ordinary” meaning of the words to determine if the statements were defamatory. The Court ruled that the defamatory nature of the statements produced by the defendant could be established through implication. Therefore, it was determined that the article “conveys the meaning that the plaintiff, the Prime Minister of Singapore and Chairman of GIC, is guilty of criminal misappropriation of the monies paid by Singaporeans to the CPF.”
Second, the defendant argued as a defense that the law of defamation was unconstitutional under Article 14 of the Constitution of the Republic of Singapore. This claim of defamation restricts the defendant’s right to freedom of speech which can only be restricted by common law. The Court responded that the right to freedom of speech is restricted by the law of defamation.
Last, the Court looked at whether the plaintiff was entitled to an injunction in order to prohibit the defendant from publishing any further information on the matter. The Court noted the difference between a final and an interim injunction and found that a “final injunction should only be granted when there are reasons to apprehend that the defendant will repeat the defamatory allegations.” The plaintiff alleged that there were reasons to believe that the defendant would re-publish the defamatory statements. The Court agreed and then expounded on what the scope of the injunction was in this case. It found that the issuance of the injunction should not infringe upon any rights to freedom of speech. Therefore, the Court issued an injunction for any words and/or images to the same effect as the original publication and ultimately held the defendant liable for defamation.
Decision Direction indicates whether the decision expands or contracts expression based on an analysis of the case.
This case contracts expression. The decision of the Court to find him guilty silences critics who criticize the government in a country known exercise such practices. Often, journalists and political opponents are charged with defamation regarding their comments on Singapore’s leaders. These included The New York Times, Bloomberg, The Economist, and Dow Jones & Co. According to the international human rights standards, Ngerng should not face a lawsuit regarding his post on the public figure and especially when the issue regards the public interest. According to the United Nations Human Rights Committee, “all public figures including those exercising the highest political authority such as heads of state and government, are legitimately subject to criticism and political position.” The International Commmission of Jurists (ICJ) stated that the high amount of damages in this case can cause a negative effect on freedom of expression in Singapore. Additionally, Ngerng was fired from his job as a patient coordinator at a local hospital shortly after the lawsuit was filed; many believe this was politically-motivated.
Global Perspective demonstrates how the court’s decision was influenced by standards from one or many regions.
Article 14, noting that every citizen of Singapore has the right to freedom of speech and expression.
“the Court must also consider if there is anything elsewhere that would put the publication in such a perspective that an ordinary reasonable reader would reach the conclusion that it is not defamatory of the plaintiff.”
“The inquiry is whether the effect of the defamatory imputation ‘is overcome by contextual matter of an emollient kind so as to eradicate the hurt and render the whole publication harmless,’ and it is ‘a question of degree and competing emphasis.”
Holding that the right to free speech and expression is restricted by the laws of defamation.
Reiterating that the law of defamation restricts freedom of speech.
Holding that the Parliament did enact the right to freedom of speech and did restrict this right through defamation law.
Establishing the test for determining the ordinary meaning of alleged defamatory words.
Established defamation by implication
Case significance refers to how influential the case is and how its significance changes over time.
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