SINGAPORE — The Online Citizen’s chief editor was accused on Tuesday (1 December) of being disingenuous about a phrase used in the article at the centre of a defamation suit filed by Prime Minister Lee Hsien Loong against him, and of not verifying allegations after he was told that they were untrue.
Cross examining Terry Xu Yuanchen, 38, on the second day hearing of the suit against him, Lee’s lawyer Senior Counsel Davinder Singh argued that Xu had not only repeated allegations by his client’s siblings Dr Lee Wei Ling and Lee Hsien Yang, he also added other falsehoods.
The article titled “PM Lee’s wife, Ho Ching weirdly shares article on cutting ties with family members” was written on 15 August last year by a staff writer on instruction by Xu. He published the article within 10 minutes of receiving it.
During his cross examination, Singh focused on an excerpt of five paragraphs in TOC’s story, which states:
“Just this May, LWL also stressed in a Facebook post that her late father was misled by PM Lee into thinking that his 38 Oxley Road property had been gazetted by the Singapore government, causing him to change his will to bestow the house to LHL.
Dr Lee also claimed that LHL eventually persuaded LKY that since Oxley had been “gazetted”, it was futile to keep LKY’s direction to demolish Oxley in his will.
Due to this misrepresentation, LKY, who had originally wanted to demolish the house, has considered “alternatives” to demolition, said the siblings.
However, according to Dr Lee, LKY began to doubt the truth that Oxley had been “gazetted” in late 2013, and it was subsequently revealed to late LKY that the house wasn’t gazetted.
If that is not all, the late LKY also removed PM Lee as an executor and trustee of his will, making only the other two siblings, LHY and LWL as the executors. (Note that this is not related to the prior alleged event mentioned before this sentence).”
PM Lee’s press secretary sent a letter to Xu on 1 September last year, asking him to remove the article and its Facebook post, and publish an unconditional apology with an undertaking not to publish any similar allegations. While Xu initially removed the article, he made it accessible again on 4 September but added the aforementioned note in parentheses, along with the letter of demand sent by PM’s press secretary.
Singh argued that the words “If that is not all” followed from the preceding paragraph, which suggested that Lee had been removed as an executor after the late Lee began to doubt that Oxley had been gazetted and it was later revealed to him that it was not.
However, Xu declined to make the link, saying that the paragraphs were not in sequential order.
Singh asked what the words “If that is not all” referred to, and Xu replied that they referred to the family feud.
The lawyer then said, “But this whole paragraph is about the family feud….you mentioned the whole family dispute. My question is if you already referred to the Lee family feud, what are the words ‘if that is not all’ meant to refer to?”
Xu replied, “(It refers to) how bad the relationships are, that’s why I said it’s a family feud.” He maintained that the point about Lee being removed as an executor was separate and not linked to what the late Lee discovered about the house not being gazetted.
After a series of exchanges, Singh suggested to Xu that his reference to the family dispute was “disingenuous”, to which Xu disagreed.
Singh pointed out that Xu later recognised the possibility of a misinterpretation arising from the words, as he later added the note in parenthesis, which ostensibly clarified PM Lee’s being removed as an executor was not related to the late Lee finding out the truth about Oxley not being gazetted.
Singh said, “I suggest to you that it was not a misinterpretation, you were finding an excuse having got caught out for saying something false.” Xu replied, “I disagree”.
The lawyer added, “You didn't even have the decency or honesty to own up to it, do you agree?” Xu disagreed, saying he added the note due to the complaint he received from the PM’s press secretary.
Singh also questioned Xu on the steps he took to verify the information he received, before publishing the article on 15 August. Xu replied he had already “established (his) belief of truth” prior to publication.
Xu said, “I believe I included all the evidence that I relied on before coming to that belief and I would like to remind the court as well I’m a website editor who has published extensively on this topic, therefore I do not have to make additional effort to get in touch with evidence as required.”
When asked by Singh if he had taken any steps to verify the allegations after the PM’s press secretary had informed him they were false, Xu said, “At that point, the content remained allegations made by siblings, it’s not the case I made allegations and that I have to retract.”
Singh then probed Xu again about whether he took any such steps, and Xu said he did not. He maintained that he relied on evidence provided by the siblings since their allegations surfaced on Facebook from 14 June 2017.
Singh will continue his cross examination of Xu on Wednesday.
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