KUALA LUMPUR (Oct 31): The High Court on Monday (Oct 31) dismissed Terengganu Sultanah Nur Zahirah’s defamation suit against Sarawak Report editor Clare Rewcastle-Brown and two others, and awarded the defendants RM80,000 in costs.
In delivering his decision, judicial commissioner Dr John Lee Kien How @ Mohd Johan Lee said although there was a case of mistaken identity, the statement in question was not defamatory. “I see no defamatory imputation from the statement, although there was obviously a matter of mistaken identity. The plaintiff’s (Sultanah Nur Zahirah) case is hereby dismissed,” the JC said during proceedings via Zoom.
Sultanah Nur Zahirah’s suit, filed in Nov 2018, revolves around a statement in Rewcastle-Brown's book “The Sarawak Report: The Inside Story of the 1MDB Exposé”.
The impugned statement is: “Jho (fugitive businessman Low Taek Jho, or Jho Low) was also friendly with a key player in Terengganu, the wife of the Sultan, whose acquiescence was needed to set up the fund and he later cited her support as having been crucial to his obtaining the advisory position”.
Apart from Rewcastle-Brown, the other defendants in the suit were Gerakbudaya Enterprise publisher Chong Ton Sin and printer Vinlin Press Sdn Bhd. Among others, the Sultanah sought general damages of RM100 million from each defendant.
The Sultanah alleged that Rewcastle-Brown made a disparaging statement about her in the book and that the statement could be taken to mean that she was involved in corrupt practices and interfered with the state’s administration.
She also claimed that the statement in the book had linked her as “friendly” with Jho Low and the statement had construed her as having helped Jho Low become the adviser of Terengganu Investment Authority (TIA), the predecessor of 1Malaysia Development Bhd (1MDB).
During the hearing of the suit in August, which spanned two days with five witnesses testifying, Sultanah Nur Zahirah denied ever knowing Jho Low or having any role or influence or involvement in TIA.
Rewcastle-Brown testified that she made an “honest mistake” by naming Sultanah Nur Zahirah in the impugned passage, as she had mistaken the Sultanah with her sister-in-law, Tunku Datuk Rahimah Sultan Mahmud.
The journalist said that she made corrections to the passage in the book’s subsequent print runs.
In his judgement, Mohd Johan ruled that from the perspective of a reasonable reader, there was nothing in the impugned statement to suggest the allegations made by the Sultanah, save for two claims.
He zeroed in on the Sultanah’s claim that the statement implied that the Sultanah consented to the establishment of the sovereign wealth fund and that she used her position to assist and/or support Jho Low in obtaining an advisory role in TIA.
The JC ruled that he saw no negative connotation in the two claims.
“Despite the factual error there, to say that the Plaintiff [Sultanah] consented or agreed to the establishment of the sovereign wealth fund, will, to my mind, not in any way degrade the Plaintiff [Sultanah]’s reputation.
“Likewise, mere support for someone for a job would not in anyway discredit a person, bearing in mind such support or letters of support is very much a Malaysian culture,” he said.
Mohd Johan added that the claim that Low had obtained the advisory position with the Sultanah’s support was made by the fugitive himself and “there is nothing to suggest the truth in it”.
AK Vishnu Kumar and Datuk Mohd Haziq Pillay represented the Sultanah, while the defendants were represented by Americk Sidhu.
Aside from this civil suit, Rewcastle-Brown has also been charged with criminal defamation in a court in Terengganu over the same book. She has made an application to transfer the matter to the Kuala Lumpur High Court.
The prosecution is opposing the transfer application, and the matter is set to be heard on Dec 12.
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