The Online Citizen chief editor Terry Xu fined S$18,000 for contempt of court
Mr Terry Xu impugned the integrity, impartiality and propriety of the courts by reproducing a letter that alleged certain people in Singapore were persecuted for political reasons, says a High Court judge.
SINGAPORE: The High Court on Thursday (Apr 6) meted out a fine of S$18,000 to the chief editor of socio-political site The Online Citizen (TOC), after finding he had impugned the integrity of the courts by publishing an article alleging that certain people were persecuted for political reasons.
The article, which was first put up in January 2021 and is no longer accessible, prompted the Attorney-General’s Chambers (AGC) to begin contempt of court proceedings against Mr Terry Xu.
In a written judgment, Justice Hoo Sheau Peng found Mr Xu guilty of contempt by publishing the article on TOC’s website.
The article - titled “Open letter to Singapore’s Chief Justice concerning omissions in ‘Opening of Legal Year 2021’ speech” - reproduced a letter written by Ms Julie Mary O’Connor, an Australian citizen and former Singapore permanent resident, on her personal blog.
Ms O’Connor had questioned how equitable the justice system in Singapore was, while referencing a speech made by Chief Justice Sundaresh Menon during a ceremony to mark the opening of the 2021 legal year.
She also brought up the cases of Mr Li Shengwu, the nephew of Prime Minister Lee Hsien Loong who was fined for contempt of court; Ms Parti Liyani, a foreign domestic worker who was acquitted of stealing from her former employer; and Mrs Lee Suet Fern, who was found guilty of professional misconduct in her handling of founding Prime Minister Lee Kuan Yew’s will.
Mr Xu published Ms O’Connor’s letter in its entirety on the TOC website on Jan 27, 2021. He also shared the article link on its Facebook page and reproduced an excerpt in a Facebook blurb.
About five months later, AGC sent a letter of demand to Mr Xu asking him to remove and delete the article and Facebook post.
When he refused to do so and disputed the accusations through his lawyers, AGC initiated contempt proceedings.
This is the latest in Mr Xu's legal battles. He was sentenced to jail time for criminal defamation over an article alleging corruption in Singapore’s Cabinet, and was ordered to pay damages and costs to PM Lee for defamation over another article.
IMPUGNED COURTS' INTEGRITY
In her 40-page judgment on Thursday, Justice Hoo found that the TOC article impugned the integrity, impartiality and propriety of the courts by suggesting that:
- The Singapore courts favour those who have money, power or connections with judges
- Singapore’s judges are not selected for their courage to seek or determine the truth
- The courts are complicit with the AGC in the political persecution of certain people and are deciding cases based on political reasons rather than on their merits
In asking for Mr Xu to be found guilty of contempt and fined S$20,000, the Attorney-General had argued that the TOC article and Facebook post did not constitute fair criticism, and that it was no defence that they merely reproduced the content of Ms O’Connor’s letter.
Under the Administration of Justice Protection Act, a person can be liable for contempt despite not having produced the contemptuous material in question.
Meanwhile, Mr Xu said it was clear Ms O’Connor’s letter had criticised the way that AGC, not the judiciary or the courts, handles prosecutions.
He contended that if it was clear the TOC article and Facebook post risked undermining public confidence in the administration of justice, AGC would have asked for them to be taken down immediately and not waited until March 2021 to raid his premises, as well as send a letter of demand in June.
During a hearing in November 2022, Mr Xu’s lawyer Lim Tean argued that the TOC website and Facebook page had been removed and their operating rights transferred to a Taiwanese entity. However, the Attorney-General said they have since been reactivated.
Mr Xu then reactivated TOC’s website and social media accounts in September 2022. He is now reportedly based in Taiwan.
"A DIRECT ATTACK"
Justice Hoo rubbished Mr Xu’s argument that Ms O’Connor was merely criticising the AGC. The judge found that a reference to “the system of justice in Singapore” would include the judiciary as a whole.
Among other things, Ms O’Connor had also alleged that the omission of Mr Li Shengwu’s and Mrs Lee Suet Fern’s legal cases in Chief Justice Menon’s speech “led many to question if it was because (Mr Li) and (Mrs Lee) were not prosecuted but persecuted due to a family feud between the Prime Minister and his siblings”.
Justice Hoo said that the article was “a direct attack on the integrity, propriety, and impartiality of the court”, since it created an impression that the courts suspended Mrs Lee for political reasons.
The judge also found that the gist of the article’s allegations was that AGC and the courts were complicit in the persecution of certain people in Singapore for political reasons.
As for whether the article and Facebook post were fair criticism, Justice Hoo disagreed.
“Although the article is framed as a criticism of the omissions in the Chief Justice’s speech, the central message it seeks to convey is that the Chief Justice did not mention certain cases because they arose from political persecution and were not determined on their merits by the courts,” she added.
“No objective or rational basis is provided for the allegation that the court rulings against Mrs Lee and Mr Li were made under political influence.”
HIGH CULPABILITY, LACK OF REMORSE
In deciding how much to fine Mr Xu, Justice Hoo found that his culpability was high and made worse by the fact that he “showed a complete lack of remorse for his actions”.
He left the TOC article and Facebook post up after AGC sent the letter of demand to him. The allegations also went to the “very heart and essence of the judicial mission and oath”, said Justice Hoo.
"As the Chief Editor of TOC, a website which professes to be ‘Singapore’s longest-running independent online media platform’, he failed to practise responsible journalism, and instead proceeded to publish scurrilous allegations against the courts,” she added.
For two months after the article was published, it received more than 4,000 page views. The Facebook post also received 146 reactions, 31 comments and 44 shares.
Justice Hoo also found that Mr Xu’s removal of the article and Facebook post to be “selective and belated”.
In light of his “cavalier attitude and lack of remorse”, the judge ordered him not to republish the Facebook post along with the article in the future. She also made an order to fully delete the article, including the title and a statement that had replaced the content.
“In this connection, given his conduct thus far, I do not accept Mr Xu’s bare assertion that he has no intention to republish the contemptuous material,” she added.
Mr Xu has to pay the fine within four weeks or serve 10 days in jail. He also has to pay S$12,000 in costs to the Attorney-General.