Singapore's Prime Minister Lee Hsien Loong, pictured here at an August 23, 2021 press conference, successfully sued two bloggers for damages over their coverage of his family affairs. (AFP/Evelyn Hockstein)

Singapore High Court rules that The Online Citizen bloggers defamed prime minister

Bangkok, September 3, 2021 – The Committee to Protect Journalists today expressed alarm at the Singapore High Court’s ruling awarding Prime Minister Lee Hsien Loong more than US$156,500 in damages in defamation suits against bloggers Terry Xu and Rubaashini Shunmuganathan.

The High Court on September 1 ruled that Xu, chief editor of The Online Citizen news blog, “acted recklessly, with indifference to the truth and with ill-will” in publishing Shunmuganathan’s August 2019 article about tensions among Prime Minister Lee’s siblings that caused “serious harm” to the premier’s reputation, according to news reports.

According to Xu, who spoke with CPJ via email, and those reports, the journalists owe a combined 210,000 Singapore dollars (US$156,589) in damages to the prime minister.

Reports also said the court issued an injunction for the outlet not to publish or refer to the allegations made by the prime minister’s siblings.

“The punitive defamation judgment against Online Citizen bloggers Terry Xu and Rubaashini Shunmuganathan are a blight on Singapore’s democratic reputation and blow to freedom of the press in the country,” said Shawn Crispin, CPJ’s senior Southeast Asia representative. “Singaporean Prime Minister Lee Hsien Loong should stop trying to sue the independent press out of existence.”

Lee’s press secretary said in a statement reported by media on September 1 that the damages awarded would be donated to charity. CPJ’s emailed requests for comment to the prime minister’s office and the High Court on the ruling’s implications for press freedom did not receive a reply.

The Online Citizen article repeated allegations made by the premier’s siblings over the contested handling of a property of their deceased father Lee Kuan Yew, Singapore’s founding father, news reports said.

Infighting between Lee and his two siblings over the colonial-era property was widely reported in 2017, the reports said. Lee’s press secretary demanded that Xu remove the article and apologize, as CPJ documented at the time.

Xu said he removed the article, but then put it back up three days later with clarifications and the letter from the press secretary; he told CPJ he did not apologize.

Xu told CPJ that he would not appeal the ruling because of the nature of Singapore’s defamation laws, which he said do not recognize the defense of “qualified privilege” for online publications.

“I think the suit itself is an assault on press freedom and there is a need to call for reformation of the defamation law,” Xu told CPJ. “The prime minister chose to sue a journalist over allegations made [by] his siblings, who he chose not to sue.”

Xu said The Online Citizen would continue publishing but would abide by the court’s injunction not to publish material about the siblings’ allegations.