The Online Citizen editor, article author on trial for defaming Singapore cabinet

Terry Xu Yuanchen (left), the chief editor of  The Online Citizen, and Daniel De Costa Augustin (right) are charged with criminal defamation of the Singapore cabinet. — TODAY pictures
Terry Xu Yuanchen (left), the chief editor of The Online Citizen, and Daniel De Costa Augustin (right) are charged with criminal defamation of the Singapore cabinet. — TODAY pictures

SINGAPORE, Oct 27 — On the first day of a criminal defamation trial involving socio-political website The Online Citizen (TOC), the court heard testimony from Sim Wee Lee, a man whose email and Facebook accounts were used by one of the accused persons.

When police officers eventually raided Sim’s home, they stumbled upon drugs there. He was later sentenced to eight months’ jail for drug possession.

Despite all this, Sim said that he has chosen to forgive Daniel Augustin De Costa, who used his Yahoo email account to send an article to TOC that alleged corruption in the cabinet.

De Costa, 37, is now contesting charges of criminal defamation along with TOC’s chief editor Terry Xu Yuanchen, 38.

Background of the case

The case revolves around an email that De Costa sent on September 4, 2018 to TOC using Sim’s email account. It was titled “PAP MP apologises to SDP.”

PAP refers to the ruling People’s Action Party, while SDP refers to the opposition Singapore Democratic Party.

Xu then approved its publication on the website in the form of a letter from Willy Sum, titled “The Take Away from Seah Kian Ping’s Facebook Post.” Sim was also known by the name Willy Sum.

The article by De Costa had alleged “corruption at the highest echelons” when he referred to comments made by Member of Parliament Seah Kian Peng, whose name was misspelt, and Law and Home Affairs Minister K. Shanmugam about a meeting in August 2018 between Malaysian Prime Minister Tun Dr Mahathir Mohamad and some Singaporean activists.

Two weeks later, Xu complied with an order from the Infocomm Media Development Authority to remove the article.

The trial was meant to start almost a year ago but De Costa’s lawyer M. Ravi argued that the charges were unlawful on constitutional grounds.

In June, a High Court judge dismissed De Costa’s third constitutional challenge.

For using another person’s email account to send the article to TOC without the owner’s consent, De Costa also faces a second charge under the Computer Misuse Act.

De Costa helped to write emails

Sim took the stand for most of yesterday, telling the court in Mandarin through an interpreter that he got to know De Costa around 2005 while walking his puppies near De Costa’s residence.

They were “good friends,” and De Costa helped him to write emails because he was not proficient in English or using the computer, Sim said.

Sim was facing bankruptcy proceedings, problems with the Housing and Development Board, and summons issued against him.

He testified that he was grateful to De Costa for his help and gave him the passwords to his Yahoo and Gmail accounts, so that De Costa could send emails on Sim’s behalf.

He also gave De Costa his Facebook account password because the other man wanted to see something on the social media site, but purportedly did not have an account himself at the time.

Sim said: “I felt very angry and uneasy about (giving my password details to him) as it was a personal account, but I needed his help and I didn’t want to offend a friend.”

Deputy Public Prosecutor (DPP) Senthilkumaran Sabapathy then asked him to look at several emails and Facebook messages dating back to 2010.

Sim said that he did not give permission for some of them to be written, and that De Costa was probably the author since only he had the passwords.

In January 2017, Sim's Yahoo account password was also changed but he was serving time in prison.

However, he had stopped using the account earlier and was not aware of the password change until the defamation case emerged.

When questioned on how he felt about De Costa sending emails without his consent, Sim said: “I was very sad I realised he had sent some emails to some departments without my permission, but because at that time I needed his help, I did not pursue the matter.”

He later told De Costa not to use his email account to send emails, which were “mostly criticising government officials,” to unspecified government departments.

De Costa then said he would stop doing so, Sim testified.

Sim added that he did not change his passwords as they were friends with “a level of trust.”

On the verge of a breakdown'

DPP Sabapathy read out in court some Facebook messages purportedly written by Sim.

One was this: “Daniel will support what is right, I know him. He broke off friendships with some friends when he found them to be not doing the right thing.”

Sim said that he did not write the messages and suspected that De Costa himself did.

On one occasion, Sim’s friend called him to say he was making some comments on racial issues. He then told De Costa not to use his account anymore.

Towards the end of the day, the prosecution asked Sim about how the case had affected him.

He replied that he has faced many difficulties after completing his most recent jail sentence in July last year.

“I was actually on the verge of a breakdown because of my life, so I only hope this matter will come to an end soon.

“As for Daniel’s actions, I do not know whether he intentionally or unintentionally brought harm to me but I choose to forgive him,” he added.

The trial continues today with Ravi cross-examining Sim.

De Costa is represented by Choo Zheng Xi and Priscilla Chia from law firm Peter Low & Choo.

If convicted of criminal defamation, De Costa and Xu may be jailed up to two years or fined, or both.

De Costa's other charge of gaining unauthorised access to Sim’s account carries a maximum two-year jail term. — TODAY

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