Church wins appeal in libel case
The Straits Times (Singapore), 1st September 1998.
By Lim Seng Jin
The Appeals Court has ruled that two newspapers defamed the Central Christian Church by labelling it a ‘cult’
The Court of Appeal has overturned a High Court ruling that two newspapers here had not defamed the Central Christian Church (CCC).
The newspapers are The New Paper (TNP) and the Chinese-language evening daily Lianhe Wanbao, which had been sued by the CCC and its founder, for calling the church “a cult” in reports published in 1991.
In a written judgment delivered last Friday, the Appeals Court overturned Justice Warren Khoo’s ruling last November that the newspaper reports were written fairly and in the public interest, and therefore not defamatory.
The Appeals Court — comprising Justices M. Karthigesu, L.P. Thean and Lai Kew Chai — ordered TNP and Wanbao to pay the church $20,000 each for libel.
It also ordered TNP to pay $30,000 to the church’s founder, Mr John Philip Louis, a 35-year-old Malaysian.
Both newspapers were also ordered to pay the church’s legal costs. TNP also has to pay Mr Louis’s costs.
The church had asked for a total of $2.25 million from the editor of TNP, Mr P.N. Balji; the Wanbao editor, Mr Chen Cheng; and the newspapers’ publishers, The Straits Times Press (1975) Ltd and Singapore Press Holdings.
TNP had published a big headline “2 Cults Exposed” on its front page of Nov 23, 1991, with a report headlined “Concern over two cult groups” on an inside page.
Wanbao published a translation of the story on the same day.
The church and its founder had also sued the bi-monthly Christian magazine Impact for $1 million, for calling it “a cult”.
The Court of Appeal ruled that Justice Khoo was right in finding that Impact was protected by the legal defences of “fair comment” and “qualified privilege” in publishing its reports.
The appeal judges agreed with Justice Khoo that the reports in the magazine Impact were written fairly, and that the magazine had a duty to feature them, as it was a publication of the Christian community that was distributed among members of that community.
They ordered the CCC and Mr Louis to pay Impact’s legal costs.
In the written judgment, the appeal judges found that although the TNP report was backed up by facts, it was actually stating a comment instead of a fact when it labelled the church “a cult”.
“To the ordinary reasonable reader, who is fair-minded, these statements are not recognisable as comments,” said the judges.
They also found that the Wanbao report, a shortened translation of the one in TNP, had even fewer facts to support the statements made in its report, which had been projected as facts and not comments.
Because of this, the newspapers’ defence of “fair comment” failed, said the judges.
About this case
The Central Christian Church (CCC) and its founder, Mr John Philip Louis, sued the editors of The New Paper and Lianhe Wanbao for calling it “a cult” in reports published on Nov 23, 1991. A Christian magazine, Impact, one of TNP’s sources for its report, was also sued.
The newspapers’ editors held that the reports were accurate, and that they had a legal, moral or social duty to inform the public about the church.
The High Court ruled last November that the church was not a cult. Despite this, the CCC still failed in four out of five of its defamation suits as the court found that the news reports had been written fairly and in the public interest.
But the church succeeded in part in its suit against TNP because the court ruled that the prominent front-page headline “2 Cults Exposed” amounted to sensationalism. Both the newspapers’ editors and the CCC appealed against this decision.