TOC editor Terry Xu jailed 3 weeks for defaming S'pore Cabinet members

Contributor to the site Daniel De Costa Augustin was also sentenced to imprisonment.

Matthias Ang | Syahindah Ishak | April 21, 2022, 03:50 PM

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Terry Xu, chief editor of the former website The Online Citizen (TOC), and contributor to the site Daniel De Costa Augustin, were each sentenced to three weeks' jail on Thursday (Apr. 21) for criminal defamation of members of Singapore's Cabinet.

De Costa was given an additional three months' jail time for unauthorised access to an email account which did not belong to him.

The court heard that Xu will begin his sentence on Apr. 21, while De Costa had his bail granted until May 4 before he has to surrender himself.

Both Xu and De Costa were each convicted of one count of criminal defamation in Nov. 2021, according to The Straits Times.

De Costa had also received a second conviction of unauthorised access to an email account which did not belong to him, for submitting a TOC article that alleged corruption at the "highest echelons".

What is the case about?

On Sep. 4, 2018, TOC published De Costa's article in question.

Apart from the allegations of corruption, the article also claimed that the Singapore Constitution had been tampered with, and criticised the current leadership in Singapore.

The Infocomm Media Development Authority (IMDA) lodged a police report against TOC and the author of the article, "Willy Sum" (real name Sim Wee Lee), as it had "made serious allegations that undermine the public's confidence in the government's integrity".

According to the police in Dec. 2018, investigations suggest that De Costa had written the article in question and sent it to TOC using Sum's email address, without Sum's knowledge.

The police also said that Xu published the article without verifying the identity of the author.

On Oct. 26, 2020, Sum testified that De Costa had sent emails criticising government officials without his permission, CNA reported.

During the trial, on Oct. 30, 2020, De Costa's lawyer M Ravi argued that his client was acting in "good faith" and simply wanted to repeat what Prime Minister Lee Hsien Loong's siblings had alleged in a statement in 2017, believing it to be true.

Nov. 2021 trial: Was the article made in good faith?

Subsequently at the trial on Nov. 12, 2021, the arguments presented in court focused on whether the allegations had been made in good faith, CNA further reported.

Lawyer M Ravi, who represented De Costa, made the following arguments, as reported by ST and CNA:

  • He said that De Costa's belief that there was "corruption at the highest echelons" was grounded in similar statements made by the siblings of PM Lee, and how no charges of defamation had been brought against them, and;
  • that Sum had consented to De Costa using his email for all purposes, and that the prosecution had failed to prove that this was not the case.

As for Xu's lawyers, Choo, Priscilla Chia, and Yong Shi-Qian, they argued, according to ST:

  • that no references were made to members of the Cabinet in the claim that there was "corruption at the highest echelons", and;
  • that any "ordinary, reasonable" reader of the article would not conclude that the claim refers to Cabinet members.

CNA reported that Deputy Public Prosecutors Mohamed Faizal, Senthilkumaran Sabapathy and Sheryl Yeo said that the imputation by De Costa and Xu that there was "corruption at the highest echelons" of the Singapore Government was "serious, baseless and clearly defamatory".

TOC taken offline in 2021

The TOC website, founded in 2006, had its class license cancelled in Oct. 2021 by IMDA after it "repeatedly refused to comply" with its licence conditions as a registered Internet Content Provider (ICP).

TOC failed to comply with the requirement to make an annual declaration of its funding sources in respect of TOC’s 2020 Undertaking and Statutory Declaration.

This was despite multiple reminders and extensions of time granted by IMDA.

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