Defamation trial for TOC chief editor, article writer begins

Terry Xu (left) and Daniel De Costa Augustin
Terry Xu (left), chief editor of The Online Citizen, and Daniel De Costa Augustin, an alleged article writer, are on trial for criminally defaming members of Singapore's Cabinet. (Yahoo News Singapore file photos)

*This story was updated at 6.04pm on 26 October 2020

SINGAPORE — The trial against The Online Citizen (TOC) chief editor Terry Xu and an alleged article writer Daniel De Costa Augustin for criminally defaming members of Singapore’s Cabinet opened on Monday (26 October).

De Costa, 37, is accused of sending an e-mail titled “PAP MP apologises to SDP” to TOC’s e-mail account on 4 September 2018, intending that the e-mail be published on TOC’s website. The e-mail allegedly stated that there was “corruption at the highest echelons”.

The 38-year-old Xu, whose name in court documents was stated as Xu Yuanchen, stands accused of approving the publication of the e-mail in the form of a letter from a “Willy Sum” titled “The Take Away From Seah Kian Ping’s Facebook Post” on TOC’s website on the same day.

The article has since been taken down by Xu.

Both are said to have known that their actions would harm the reputation of members of the Cabinet of Singapore.

De Costa faces an additional charge under the Computer Misuse Act of using another person’s e-mail account without permission to send the e-mail to TOC from an Internet cafe in Chinatown on 4 September 2018.

Defence’s objections rebutted

De Costa’s lawyer M Ravi opened on Monday by objecting to the prosecution proceeding on his client’s Computer Misuse Act charge. The lawyer argued that the prosecution should lead with evidence from the criminal defamation charges in order not to waste the court’s time.

The prosecution, represented by Deputy Public Prosecutors Mohamed Faizal, Sheryl Yeo and Senthilkumaran Sabapathy, argued that Ravi was simply seeking to have the proceedings conducted in a manner he preferred.

Ravi then stated that the process was “irregular” and that he would take “an application which is necessary in the High Court”. He then objected to a joint trial between his client and Xu, arguing that it would be prejudicial to De Costa’s case as the “state media” was present.

Rebutting Ravi, DPP Faizal accused the lawyer of blowing hot and cold about having a joint trial, despite earlier agreeing to it. Faizal said that the prosecution will be drawing evidence for all the charges and that the sequence of evidence led was immaterial.

“So at the end of the day let’s not pretend this is about a point of law. This is nothing more than the accused saying, ‘I demand the trial proceed in accordance to my terms’ and that is not something the court ought to condone,” said DPP Faizal.

District Judge Ng Peng Hong said he considered Ravi’s objection but ruled that the joint trial continue.

De Costa used e-mail account without permission since 2011

Taking the stand on Monday was Sim Wee Lee, the person whose e-mail account De Costa is accused of misusing. He testified that De Costa had been using his e-mail accounts without permission since 25 June 2011.

Sim, who also goes by the name Willy and the Cantonese version of his surname Sum, said that he first met De Costa, who stayed nearby, between 2005 and 2006 while taking his puppies out for a walk. As De Costa passed by the street where Sim would walk his dogs, the two started chatting, with Sim considering De Costa a “good friend”.

As Sim is not proficient in English, he began turning to De Costa for help in replying official e-mails to government agencies.

“I’m grateful for Daniel because at that time I was facing bankruptcy proceedings and also problems with HDB and also problems with summons that were issued against me. Because I was bad in writing in English so I asked him to help me to pen the e-mails,” Sim told the court through a Mandarin interpreter.

Sim shared two e-mail account passwords with De Costa for this purpose and would call him at times to check whether the messages had been sent.

Unknown to Sim, however, De Costa was also allegedly using the account to send out politically charged e-mails in Sim’s name. More than 15 e-mails sent between 2011 and 2018 were allegedly sent by De Costa using Sim’s e-mail address, signed off with variations of Sim’s name.

Quizzed on each of these e-mails, Sim said he believed De Costa was the one who sent them, as he was the only one other person with access to the account. Sim said that he had not given De Costa permission to send out the e-mails using his account.

When he eventually found out about De Costa’s actions, Sim said he was “very sad” but did not pursue the matter as he still needed De Costa’s help.

He took up the issue with De Costa but the latter said that since he was using his e-mail account to correspond with others, he would use the account the express his thoughts as well.

“I told him that if he wanted to send personal e-mails then he should not use my personal e-mail account,” said Sim.

Sim said he did not change the password to his e-mail account. He also testified that De Costa had used his Facebook account to send messages to others.

Asked why he had handed over his Facebook password to De Costa, Sim said, “He asked me if I had a Facebook account and told me wanted to go in and see. So I asked him, ‘Don’t you have Facebook?’ and he said 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 I lent (my Facebook account) to him to take a look.”

However, Sim felt “very angry and uneasy about it” as it was his personal account.

Using Sim’s Facebook account, De Costa then allegedly sent private messages to other people, in which he appeared to reference himself.

One message read: “I’m sure Daniel will support you all the way. I know him for 10 years he is righteous and will stand for it”. Another said: “Daniel will support what is right he even broken off friendship with some friends when he found them to be not doing right things.”

At one point, a friend of Sim’s spoke to him about the comments on racial issues Sim had been making on Facebook. That was when Sim realised De Costa had been using his Facebook account.

Sim said he then told De Costa to stop using his Facebook account to send such messages and the latter agreed.

Sometime later the police turned up at Sim’s home and seized his computer. As drugs were found in his residence, Sim was jailed eight months over the offence.

“I told (the officer) that I did not personally deal with e-mails. The police asked me who had my e-mail accounts. My answer was just Daniel had the e-mail accounts,” said Sim.

Asked how he felt about the police visit, Sim said, “I completed my sentence (for drugs) towards the end of July last year. After completing my sentence I still had to go to the police station and AGC for interviews.”

“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 will resume on Tuesday.

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