The Online Citizen editor and article writer on trial for criminal defamation over piece alleging Cabinet corruption

Singapore
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SINGAPORE: The chief editor of The Online Citizen (TOC) website went to trial on Monday (Oct 26) along with a man accused of writing a defamatory article for the platform, alleging corruption in the Singapore Cabinet.

The trial opened proper after previous failed attempts by lawyer M Ravi to refer the case to the High Court instead.

TOC founder Xu Yuanchen, 38, better known as Terry, is contesting one charge of defaming members of the Cabinet by publishing the defamatory article on Sep 4, 2018.

The article was sent in to TOC under the name Willy Sum, but Xu’s co-accused Daniel De Costa Augustin, 37, is said to be the real writer of the piece, which alleged “corruption at the highest echelons”.

De Costa, who is represented by Mr Ravi, was given one charge of criminal defamation and a second charge of unauthorised access to Mr Willy’s email account to send the article to TOC.

According to an agreed statement of facts that both the prosecution and the accused settled on, De Costa sent an email titled “PAP MP apologises to SDP” to theonlinecitizen@gmail.com from an Internet cafe in Chinatown on Sep 4, 2018.

He intended that the contents of the email would be published on the TOC website.

On the same day, Xu approved the publication of the email sent to TOC from a person named Willy Sum, titled “The Take Away From Seah Kian Ping’s Facebook Post”. Mr Seah’s name was misspelt.

The allegedly defamatory article said “we have seen multiple policy and foreign screw-ups, tampering of the Constitution, corruption at the highest echelons and apparent lack of respect from foreign powers ever since the demise of founding father Lee Kuan Yew”.

After the article was published, the then Info-communications and Media Development Authority lodged a police report and then-Senior Parliamentary Secretary for the Ministry of Home Affairs Amrin Amin said the allegations were “serious” and could not be taken lightly.

EMAIL ACCOUNT OWNER TESTIFIES

The first witness to take the stand for the prosecution on Monday was Mr Sim Wee Lee, also known as Willy, whose account De Costa had allegedly used to send the defamatory material.

Mr Sim told the court that he met De Costa while walking his dogs in 2005 or 2006. They became friends and he allowed De Costa to use his Yahoo email account to help him send emails to settle his bankruptcy and housing matters.

He was not good with computers, Mr Sim testified through a Mandarin interpreter, and trusted De Costa as a friend. Later on, he also gave De Costa access to his Gmail and Facebook account, and De Costa was the only other person who had his passwords.

His Yahoo account password was changed in January 2017, and Mr Sim said he could not have changed it as he was in prison at the time, guessing that De Costa had done this without permission.

He said he had been very grateful to De Costa for helping him send emails to the authorities, but later found out that De Costa had sent several emails without his permission. He said he felt “very sad” and asked De Costa about this a few times.

“The response he gave me was – since he was using my email accounts to send emails, so he will use my email account to express his thoughts,” said Mr Sim. “I told him that if he wanted to send personal emails then he should not use my personal email account to send emails to those departments.”

De Costa told him “what he had written was the truth”, said Mr Sim. Later he told Mr Sim he would not longer use the email account to send such emails. 

Most of the emails were criticising Government officers, said Mr Sim, adding it made him “very angry”. 

VERY ANGRY OVER UNAUTHORISED EMAILS, BUT NEEDED DE COSTA’S HELP

However, he said he did not change his passwords or take any steps to prevent De Costa from repeating what he did because they were friends and he needed his help.

Subsequently, he also gave his Facebook details to De Costa, who said he had no Facebook account and wanted to “go in and see”.

“I asked him, don’t you have Facebook, he said no he didn’t have one. Since that was the case, and he was also helping me with the bankruptcy and HDB matters, as a friend, since he wanted to take a look, I lent it to him,” said Mr Sim.

De Costa allegedly used Mr Sim’s Facebook account to pose as Mr Sim and send messages to other people, saying that De Costa was “righteous” and “will support what is right”.

Mr Sim said a friend had called him to say that Mr Sim was making comments on racial issues and Mr Sim told De Costa not to use his account to post such things. De Costa supposedly agreed.

In late 2018, police knocked on Mr Sim’s door, to his surprise, saying they sought him for defamatory issues. While they were checking his home, they found some drugs and he was sentenced to eight months’ jail for drug possession in February 2019.

READ: Police investigate The Online Citizen over ‘serious allegations’ made in article

Mr Sim said he was “very surprised” to see the police. “I asked the police what offence I had committed. The police told me (they were) coming up for a defamatory matter. At that time, I was thinking, why such things happen to me. The police asked me – if I did not defame, why did my name appear in the emails?”

He responded that he did not personally deal with his email and said only De Costa had access to his accounts.

“I completed my sentence towards the end of July last year,” said Mr Sim. “After completing my sentence, I still had to go to the police and AGC for interviews. In that period of time, I was on the verge of breakdown. I only hope this matter will come to an end soon. As for Daniel’s action, I do not know whether he intentionally or unintentionally brought harm to me, but I choose to forgive him.”

The trial was led by Deputy Public Prosecutors Mohamed Faizal, Senthilkumaran Sabapathy and Sheryl Yeo, and resumes on Tuesday, with the defence set to cross-examine Mr Sim.

Xu is represented by Remy Choo and Priscilla Chia, while De Costa is defended by lawyer M Ravi, who tried unsuccessfully on Monday morning to have the trial heard separately instead of a joint trial.

If found guilty of criminal defamation, Xu and De Costa can be jailed for up to two years, fined or both. De Costa can be fined up to S$5,000 and jailed a maximum of two years if convicted of his computer crime.

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