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ST’s misleading headline tantamount to defamation as well?

According to news reports, Prime Minister Lee Hsien Loong has sued long time blogger Leong Sze Hian (Leong) over a Facebook (FB) post whereby Leong shared an article published by Malaysian online news media, TheCoverage.my. The article alleged that Singapore and Lee were targets of an investigation in relation to the now infamous 1MDB scandal.

The contents of Malaysian article was based on content by States Times Review (STR) which have since been debunked and Clare Rewcastle, the investigative journalist whose article was allegedly used as a basis for the STR article has publicly stated that she had been misquoted. In short, the STR article is inaccurate at best and completely wrong at worst.

While I understand the need for PM Lee to clear his name, I personally think that asking TheCoverage.my and STR to remove the offending article would be sufficient. PM Lee would then have both cleared the air and also assumed the moral high ground. By tackling the publications hard, Lee could run the risk of looking like a bully (even if that is not his intention). This is the subject of a whole other discussion altogether. For the purposes of this article, I would like to focus on the actions that have been taken against Leong. Is Leong guilty of defamation simply for sharing an article on his FB page?

Leong did not write or participate in any way, shape or form to the offending article. All he did was share a link. We all do this on our FB pages sharing articles from child rearing to the lives of reality TV stars. These articles may or may not be one hundred percent true but we don't have the lawyers of these celebrities threatening to sue our pants off? Since when is sharing an article tantamount to defamation? It is also important to note that Leong complied with a demand by the Info-communications Media Development Authority (IMDA) on 10 Nov to take down the Facebook share within six hours.

If Leong is indeed taken to court and found guilty, this sets a dangerous precedent for virtually any entity (ranging from big corporations to rich individuals) with the money to pursue law suits to bully anyone into not speaking up. Is this the kind of society we want to live in whereby money can be used as a tool to subjugate?

Secondly, what exactly constitutes defamation? Leong did not write the article. Nor did he promote the article with any of his own comments or opinions. In other words, it was a "blank" share. Is this really defamation? After all, he was in no position to verify the truth of the article. He also complied with the take down notice. The only thing he did not do was issue a public apology. A refusal to apologise is not defamation in itself. Has everyone who "shared" the article been similarly prosecuted? Not that I am advocating lawsuits but if it is indeed the case that only Leong is being singled out - then we have to ask why this is the case?

STR was the source of the offending article. Isn't tackling STR enough?

Last but not least, I note that the Straits Times (ST) has printed a rather misleading headline. It's headline said "PM Lee sues financial adviser Leong Sze Hian for defamation". This is not entirely true. The ST headline makes it seem like it was Leong who was behind the offending article when in reality, he merely shared it. Is this not misrepresentation on the part of ST?

Further, this article is in the "premium" section of ST which means that the general public may not be able to read beyond the misleading headline. Does this not make Leong seem like he is guilty of something that he isn't? Could this be tantamount to defamation on the part of ST as well? Arguably if Leong had the deep pockets to pursue a lawsuit, he could as well?