KUALA LUMPUR (Sept 20): The High Court has fixed Oct 31 to deliver its decision in the defamation lawsuit filed by Sultanah Nur Zahirah of Terengganu against Sarawak Report editor Clare Rewcastle-Brown.
The sultanah's complaint is over a passage in the book titled The Sarawak Report: The Inside Story on 1Malaysia Development Bhd (1MDB), which linked the sultanah to her purported acquaintance with fugitive businessman Low Taek Jho (Jho Low) which led him to be appointed as special adviser to Terengganu Investment Authority, the predecessor to 1MDB.
In the second edition of the book, however, Rewcastle-Brown replaced the words "the wife of the Sultan" with "the sister of the Sultan".
Judicial Commissioner Dr John Lee Kien How @ Mohammad Johan Lee fixed the decision date on Tuesday (Sept 20) after hearing submissions from lawyers A Vishnu Kumar and Datuk Mohd Haziq Pillay, who are representing Sultanah Nur Zahirah, and Americk Sidhu, who appeared for Rewcastle-Brown.
The sultanah had testified in the hearing along with former Terengganu Menteri Besar Datuk Seri Ahmad Said, while Rewcastle-Brown — who was charged along with printer VinLin Press Sdn Bhd and publisher Chong Ton Sing of Gerakbudaya Enterprise as second and third defendants — was the sole witness for the defence.
The book was published in 2018, and reportedly had a sale of 2,000 copies. The sultanah claimed that the publication of the passage had tarnished her reputation and is seeking RM100 million in damages from the defendants.
During online proceedings on Tuesday, Vishnu submitted that the sultanah herself had testified that she had nothing to do with TIA and this was further verified by Ahmad.
He said the sultanah had been ridiculed on social media as a result of the publication.
The lawyer submitted that the passage carried the meaning that Jho Low had netted an advisory role (in TIA) because of his alleged friendship with her.
“What would any ordinary person think when reading this passage?” he asked.
Vishnu further submitted that the passage should have been read in the context of it being written and published in 2018 when it was known now that Jho Low was responsible for the 1MDB scandal, and not in the context of TIA's formation.
The sultanah's lawyer said Rewcastle-Brown had never taken the initiative to verify the facts before the publication of the book and that the passage cited was defamatory as it gave the impression that she had influenced or interfered in the Terengganu administration's affairs to have Jho Low appointed in an advisory position, when it was not the case.
“Why had they not inquired about this before the book's publication? The question is the non-testimony of the second and third defendants in this as if they have nothing today. The question is whether Brown was testifying on their behalf or what,” the counsel said.
Americk, in his reply, said Rewcastle-Brown had tendered an apology for the error but denied that what was published was defamatory, as what was published was that Jho Low was close to the Terengganu royal household.
“She had been advised that her writing was not defamatory of the plaintiff and that was why the apology was made on that matter but not on the context it was defamatory,” he added.
He said it is not Rewcastle-Brown claiming that the plaintiff (sultanah) was close to Jho Low or anything like that, but it was based on what the fugitive businessman had claimed that was widely reported in the past
The counsel said the book was written in a historical context, and that was the reference then and since there were no complaints (previously) over write-ups that allegedly the sultanah had put Jho Low in that position, then the author should not be faulted.
He further argued that the book should have been read in the context of the relationship in 2009 when TIA was formed and not put it in the context of 2018.
Americk further said his client also claimed fair comment with regards to the publication.
He added that the second and third defendants were not brought in to testify as they had nothing much to say.
“If the plaintiff wanted them to testify then they should have subpoenaed them,” he added.
In response, Vishnu said that while Rewcastle-Brown did apologise, it was not in the context that his client had wanted it to be, as the author had denied that the writing was defamatory.
He claimed that the publisher and printer were not called to testify to hide facts relating to the book's sales, possibly overseas.
“We have to only rely on Brown's testimony that 2,000 copies were sold but we do not know how many copies were published or possibly sold outside the country,” he said, adding that it makes it difficult for them to fix the amount of damages to seek.
When asked by the judge what quantum of damages the sultanah was seeking, Vishnu replied that it was RM100 million. Americk, meanwhile, asked the court to fix a nominal amount of damages if it ruled against the author.
Sultanah Nur Zahirah had filed the suit in 2018, following the publication of the book.
Besides this civil suit, Rewcastle-Brown has also been charged with criminal defamation in a court in Terengganu.