PUTRAJAYA, Feb 13 — The Federal Court has ruled today that Pahang Mentri Besar Datuk Seri Adnan Yaakob can proceed with his defamation suit against newspaper publisher Utusan Melayu (M) Bhd over a 2014 article.
Chief Judge of Malaya Tan Sri Zulkefli Ahmad Makinudin said the five-man panel which he chaired had unanimously decided that Adnan's case should be sent to the High Court for a full hearing, reversing a previous court decision that threw out his lawsuit.
“The appeal is allowed, decision of Court of Appeal is set aside and decision of High Court restored. In other words, go for trial,” he said.
The judge gave no order on costs and fixed February 22 for case management at the High Court.
Today was the hearing of Adnan's appeal against the Court of Appeal's decision last March 1 to strike out his lawsuit against the Malay daily.
Earlier during the hearing, the judges had repeatedly raised the question of whether the content of the alleged defamatory article was directed against Adnan in his personal capacity or in his official capacity as Mentri Besar, as well as whether he had sued in his personal or official capacity.
The judges said that Adnan should be allowed to have his day in court where evidence can be presented to determine such issues, saying his case should not be struck out without full trial unless it was plain and obvious that he had filed in his official capacity.
During the hearing, Adnan's lawyer Americk Sidhu stressed the need for his client's lawsuit to go for a full trial.
"No evidence has been laid. He hasn't been given the opportunity to answer, 'are you bringing this action in your personal capacity or bringing action on behalf of state government of Pahang?’
"No one asked him that question. Why are we all making assumptions that he is suing on behalf of state of Pahang?" he told the judges, having pointed out that his client happened to be the Pahang Mentri Besar and had suffered injury.
Utusan Melayu lawyer Datuk M. Reza Hassan, however, argued that a person must have locus standi or legal standing before they can file a lawsuit, claiming that Adnan lacked such standing as allegedly shown in the latter's claims in court documents that his reputation as Mentri Besar had been affected.
"The upshot of this is he himself thinks the critique is levelled against him in respect of his administration.
"If we go back to trial, if you accept Derbyshire, he would still lack the requisite locus. My point is he has no locus standi in the first place," he said, also insisting that Utusan Melayu's article when taken as a whole was only criticising Adnan's administration and did not amount to personal attacks.
Today's case had attracted public attention as it was initially anticipated that the Federal Court may decide on whether the principle in the 1993 UK case of Derbyshire County Council v Times Newspapers Ltd applied in Malaysia.
Reza later confirmed to reporters that there has yet to be a Federal Court ruling on the applicability of the Derbyshire principle, which says that a local authority or government body cannot sue for defamation as they should be open to public criticism on their public functions and as it would be against public interest to fetter freedom of speech.
The judges today repeatedly focused instead on whether it was plain and obvious that the lawsuit was filed in Adnan's personal or official capacity, with Zulkefli saying in the decision: "We are not saying Derbyshire applies or doesn't apply. We are going to decide it in due course."
The other judges on the Federal Court panel for today's case are Tan Sri Ahmad Maarop, Tan Sri Hasan Lah, Datuk Aziah Ali and Tan Sri Jeffrey Tan Kok Wha.
The Court of Appeal had last March decided that Adnan could not sue Utusan Melayu as he had sued in his official capacity for criticism directed at him in his official capacity as it could otherwise cause a "chilling effect" on free speech and result in political censorship.
hat ruling had reversed the High Court's July 2015 decision not to strike out the lawsuit, where the latter had found that Adnan had legal standing to sue as he had sued in his personal capacity.
Adnan had filed a defamation lawsuit against Utusan Melayu on December 5, 2014, over an article published in its weekend paper Mingguan Malaysia on November 9 that year titled, “Hebat Sangatkah Adnan?” (Is Adnan so great?).
Among other things, Adnan reportedly claimed in his suit that the article, published under the Mingguan Malaysia column Bisik-Bisik Awang Selamat, implied that he had failed in carrying out his duties and should not be mentri besar.
He also claimed the article had implied that he used his political position to abuse the media when it was critical of him, besides implying that he was a liability to his political party.
Adnan had sought general, aggravated and exemplary damages, an apology and an undertaking not to repeat the publication of such defamatory material.