Straits Times: Suit against WP – Tamil Language Committee appeals

By Chua Mui Hoong

THE organising committee of the 1995 Tamil Language Week yesterday appealed against an earlier court decision which had ruled that Mr J.B. Jeyaretnam’s malice against the People’s Action Party was irrelevant to its defamation suit against the Workers’ Party.

The committee members, represented by lawyer Harry Elias, argued that the malice shown towards the PAP by Mr Jeyaretnam, the WP chief, defeated the defendants’ claim that the allegedly defamatory words were fair comment on a matter of public interest, and were therefore relevant to the case.

The 11 committee members are suing the WP over an August 1995 article in the party organ, The Hammer, which they said libelled them by suggesting they were government stooges who had organised the event to curry favour with the Government.

The WP was also sued by five Indian PAP MPs for remarks made in the same article, which it later apologised for. The case is now before the courts and will be heard later.

The defendants are: the writer, Mr A. Balakrishnan; the editor, Mr Jeyaretnam, who is the party’s secretary-general; the publisher, the WP; and the printer, Misa Press Pte Ltd.

The WP’s case was that the words were not defamatory, and were fair comment on a matter of public interest.

The Tamil Language Week committee members argued that Mr Jeyaretnam harboured malice against PAP and government leaders, and thus could not claim fair comment as a defence.

Mr Jeyaretnam, arguing the case for the WP, in turn argued at an earlier hearing last year that evidence of his own malice towards a third party, the PAP, was irrelevant and frivolous.

Justice G.P. Selvam ruled in favour of the WP last August and ordered portions of the plaintiffs’ defence which alleged malice on Mr Jeyaretnam’s part to be struck out.

Yesterday’s hearing was an appeal against Justice Selvam’s decision.

Mr Elias cited legal cases to show that malice borne by a defendant need not be directed against the offended party, but could be directed at a third party. Thus Mr Jeyaretnam’s malice against the PAP destroyed the defendants’ claim of fair comment, he argued.

Under the law, a defence of fair comment in a defamation suit is defeated if there is evidence of malice.

Mr Jeyaretnam, in turn, argued that the plaintiffs’ case was flawed as it sought a “double transfer” of malice.

What Mr Elias was arguing, he said, was that because the second defendant (Mr Jeyaretnam) had malice against Mr Lee Kuan Yew, this meant that there was also malice on the part of the writer (Mr Balakrishnan) against the plaintiffs.

“That cannot be so,” said Mr Jeyaretnam.

Mr Elias countered that in a defamation suit, the judge should take the “helicopter view” and look at the occasion on which the offending remark was made.

If malice can be ascribed to one of the defendants involved during that occasion, all the defendants bear joint responsibility and can no longer claim fair comment as a defence, he argued.

The appeal court said after the 1-3/4-hour hearing that it would make its decision at a later date.


ARGUMENTS

MALICE: The Tamil Language Week committee members argued that Mr Jeyaretnam harboured malice against PAP and government leaders, and thus could not claim fair comment as a defence.

DEFENCE: Mr Jeyaretnam, arguing the case for the WP, argued at an earlier hearing last year that evidence of his own malice towards a third party, the PAP, was irrelevant and frivolous.

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Posted in 1997 03. Comments Off on Straits Times: Suit against WP – Tamil Language Committee appeals
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