SINGAPORE: A district judge on Wednesday (Nov 27) rejected an application by a defence lawyer representing one of two men charged for criminal defamation to refer a question of law to the High Court.
The Online Citizen (TOC) editor Terry Xu Yuanchen and the purported author of an article alleging corruption in Singapore's Cabinet, Daniel De Costa, intend to contest the charges.
De Costa's lawyer M Ravi argued on what should have been the first day of the trial that the case should be referred to the High Court for a question of law.
This question deals with a citizen's right to criticise the Government without being liable for criminal prosecution and refers to whether the Cabinet can be defamed as per Section 499 of the Penal Code.
If Mr Ravi had been successful in his bid, his client's charge could have been quashed.
After deliberating for several hours, District Judge Christopher Tan said the matter "does not merit a referral to the High Court".
"I see no question of law relating to the interpretation or effect of (an article) that merits a referral," he said.
De Costa is accused of logging into another man's email account to send an article to TOC for publication.
The article, titled The Take Away from Seah Kian Ping's Facebook Post, was published on TOC under the other man's name.
The article alleged that "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".
Xu was charged with defaming members of Singapore's Cabinet by publishing the letter, knowing that it would harm the Cabinet members' reputation.
Mr Ravi argued on Wednesday morning that the case "is of high constitutional importance", with the question of law applicable not only to the accused but to all Singaporeans.
He said that it was of the highest public importance that a governmental body should be open to uninhibited public criticism and argued that "a right to sue for defamation would be an undesirable fetter on freedom of speech".
The lawyer argued that the question of law "speaks directly to the rights of citizens" and urged the court to scrutinise whether the charges against De Costa were constitutional and trespassed on his rights.
He also said the Cabinet is not an individual but an entity, with "no feelings or emotions", and cannot be defamed.
The prosecution, led by Deputy Chief Prosecutor Mohamed Faizal, said the question posed by Mr Ravi was "nothing more than a simple legal question couched misleadingly in constitutional language".
They pointed out that companies, political parties and society have reputations as well and can be defamed.
They said the question of law raised was "entirely irrelevant" to the case and said Mr Ravi's application was "a flagrant abuse of process – frivolous and without any merit".
Mr Ravi asked for the trial proceedings to be stayed, pending an appeal to the High Court.
The next dates, scheduled for January, are still active but Deputy Chief Prosecutor Mohamed Faizal said he would not object to Mr Ravi's request, as long as he filed a criminal motion and had the matter heard in High Court "as soon as possible".
Xu's lawyers, led by Mr Remy Choo, did not make any submissions on Wednesday.
If found guilty of criminal defamation, the men 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 for his computer crime, if convicted.