The Online Citizen editor Terry Xu and writer jailed for defaming Cabinet members

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.
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. (FILE PHOTOS: Yahoo News Singapore)

SINGAPORE — Terry Xu, chief editor of the now-defunct social-political website The Online Citizen (TOC), was sentenced to three weeks' jail on Thursday (21 April) for criminal defamation.

The 39-year-old was found guilty in November last year of defaming members of the Singapore Cabinet over corruption allegations, after approving the publication of a letter on 4 September 2018.

The letter writer, Daniel De Costa Augustin, 38, was also sentenced three weeks' jail for criminal defamation. In addition, he was also sentenced to three months' jail for unauthorised access to an email account not belonging to him, which he used to submit the letter.

He will serve his sentences consecutively, for a total of three months and three weeks.

Article sent using email account without user's permission

On 4 September 2018, De Costa sent an email "PAP MP apologises to SDP" to TOC from an Internet cafe in Chinatown, intending for it to be published on the website.

That same day, Xu approved the publication of the email, which was sent to TOC from a person named Willy Sum. The article was titled "The Take Away From Seah Kian Ping's Facebook Post", with the Marine Parade GRC Member of Parliament's name misspelt.

De Costa had used an email account belonging to a Sim Wee Lee to submit the article to TOC under the name Willy Sum.

Sim had testified previously that he became friends with De Costa while walking his dogs in 2005 or 2006, and allowed De Costa to use his email account to help him settle bankruptcy and housing matters.

He later found out that De Costa had sent emails criticising government officers without his permission.

TOC taken offline after class licence suspended

Both Xu and De Costa went to trial last year to contest their charges.

Xu, represented by lawyers Remy Choo and Priscilla Chia, argued that the phrase "corruption at the highest echelons" did not refer to individual members of the Cabinet, and that he did not know the phrase harmed their reputation.

Deputy Public Prosecutors Mohamed Faizal Mohamed Abdul Kadir, Senthilkumaran Sabapathy and Sheryl Yeo, however, said in their submissions that a contextual interpretation of the article makes it plain that the phrase was an imputation relating to the members of the Cabinet of Singapore.

"The imputation was serious, baseless and clearly defamatory," they said.

"Both De Costa and Xu would have known that the imputation of corruption would harm the reputation of the Cabinet. Neither of them had any cogent basis to make the allegation and it is clear that they had not acted in good faith."

TOC and its social media channels were taken offline in September last year, after the Infocomm and Media Development Authority had earlier suspended TOC's class licence, due to its repeated failures to comply with legal obligations to declare all sources of funding.

For criminal defamation, Xu and De Costa could have been jailed up to two years and fined. For unauthorised computer access, De Costa could also have been jailed up to two years and/or fined up to $5,000.

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