Federal Court orders Malaysiakini to pay over RM500,000 in defamation suit involving gold mining company

Malaysiakini editor-in-chief Steven Gan said the decision today was a huge blow for public interest journalism. ― File picture by Hari Anggara
Malaysiakini editor-in-chief Steven Gan said the decision today was a huge blow for public interest journalism. ― File picture by Hari Anggara

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KUALA LUMPUR, July 2 ― The Federal Court today dismissed an appeal filed by news portal Malaysiakini and ordered the media company to pay RM550,000 in compensation to Raub Australian Gold Mining (RAGM) in a defamation suit brought against the former.

The news portal reported that it was ordered to pay RM350,000 in costs and damages awarded to RAGM by the Court of Appeal in 2018, and another RM200,000 in costs.

The report said that the decision today was a split 3-2 majority by the five-member panel chaired by Federal Court judge Datuk Vernon Ong Lam Kiat.

The majority judgment in favour of dismissing Malaysiakini’s appeal was read by fellow bench member Datuk Abdul Rahman Sebli. Other members of the bench on the majority side were Puan Sri Zaleha Yusof and Dauk Seri Hasnah Mohammed Hashim.

The news portal reported that Ong was part of the minority judgment.

“Malaysiakini will not be seeking public donations in view of the economic downturn due to Covid-19. The news portal will be using its legal defence fund. It had raised RM350,000 to pay RAGM in 2018,” the news portal said.

Datuk Cyrus Das represented Malaysiakini while Tan Sri Cecil Abraham acted for RAGM.

National news agency Bernama reported that on May 23, 2016, the High Court judge Justice Rosnani Saub had dismissed RAGM's claim against the portal and three members of its editorial staff.

Malaysiakini had reported that villagers at Bukit Koman in Raub, Pahang had alleged that the use of cyanide-based chemicals to extract gold at RAGM's mine had adversely affected their health.

Bernama reported that Malaysiakini's reports on the issue involved three news reports and two videos, with one report showing villagers expressing fears over the mining activity while the other two were press conferences held by the villagers.

However, in 2018, the Court of Appeal overturned the High Court ruling, and ordered the news portal to pay RM200,000 in damages and RM150,000 in costs. Today, the Federal Court imposed an additional cost of RM200,000.

Malaysiakini editor-in-chief Steven Gan said the decision today was a huge blow for public interest journalism.

“We are disappointed by the decision. We were carrying out our duty as journalists in reporting the health concerns of the Bukit Koman villagers.

“In an earlier decision involving a lawsuit filed by the gold mine company against the villagers, this same court, in delivering victory to the villagers, said they have the right to express their concerns over the gold mining.

“However, in our case, we were found to have committed defamation for primarily reporting what they said,” Malaysiakini reported him saying after today's decision.

Malaysiakini CEO Premesh Chandran said that it is pertinent to have the media speak up and hold those in power accountable.

“We take heart that the minority judgement has noted legal changes among Commonwealth countries towards supporting the critical role the media plays in voicing public concerns.

“In these times of crisis, and with so many people facing extreme hardship, it's critical that the media speaks up and holds those in power to account. Hence, we will continue with our duty to report news and views that matter, without fear or favour, with accuracy and balance. Malaysians deserve no less.

“Given the dire situation in the country, we will not be asking for public donations, it's more important that families are kept afloat,” he reportedly said.

Gan was quoted saying that Malaysiakini will not be asking for public donation this time around, as it had raised RM270,000 beyond the RM500,000 fine that was imposed by the Federal Court for contempt earlier this year.

Three years ago, after the Court of Appeal ruling, Malaysiakini had raised RM350,000 to cover the damages and costs.

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