Federal Court dismisses Malaysiakini’s appeal in Gold Mining company’s defamation suit

by BERNAMA

PUTRAJAYA – The Federal Court here today upheld the Court of Appeal’s order that news portal Malaysiakini and three others have to pay RM200,000 in damages to Raub Australian Gold Mining Sdn Bhd (RAGM) over the publication of defamatory articles relating to gold mining activities in Bukit Koman, Raub Pahang.

The five-member bench led by Federal Court judge Datuk Vernon Ong Lam Kiat, in a majority 3-2 decision, dismissed the appeal by Mkini Dotcom Sdn Bhd, the company which operates news portal Malaysiakini, and three other former members of the editorial team.

The court ordered Malaysiakini to pay RM200,000 in costs.

The majority decision was read out by Federal Court judge Datuk Abdul Rahman Sebli. Justices Puan Sri Zaleha Yusof and Datuk Seri Hasnah Mohammed Hashim concurred with him while the minority decision came from Justice Datuk Harmindar Singh Dhaliwal with Justice Ong concurring with him.

In his judgment, Justice Abdul Rahman Sebli said the Court of Appeal was correct in holding that the defence of reportage must be specifically pleaded as it is distinct and separate from the Reynolds defence of responsible journalism.

Reportage is a common law defence against defamation lawsuits, usually involving media organisations republishing unproven accusations about public figure, so long as the reporting is unbiased and in the public interest.

The Reynolds defence of responsible journalism is that there must be an attempt by media to contact the other side before publishing the article.

Justice Abdul Rahman said from the pleadings and the contents of the articles and videos, Malaysiakini had subscribed to a belief in the truth and accuracy of the defamatory imputations.

“There is no averment in the statement of defence denying that they had subscribed to such belief and that they were simply reporting in a neutral fashion. A vital element of reportage is therefore missing from the pleadings to entitle the appellants (Malaysiakini) to rely on the defence of reportage,” he said.

He also held that loss of goodwill can be recovered as a component of defamatory damages by RAGM that has gone into insolvency.

The gold mine has since gone into voluntary liquidation and is no longer in operation.

Justice Abdul Rahman said the majority court decision ruled in the affirmative on a legal question that it was proper to award general damages for loss of goodwill and vindication of reputation to RAGM which has independently been subjected to a voluntary winding-up by its creditors.

In the dissenting judgment, Justice Harmindar Singh said the whole story about the fears arising from RAGM’s gold mining activities was already in the public consciousness as evidence disclosed that since 1996, there were at least 26 news articles from various news media.

“To impose a burden on the media to engage independent experts prior to publication would not just be an onerous undertaking but also impractical as the function of the media is to report the news as it unfolds,” he said.

He said the impugned articles and video, although damaging to RAGM, were on a matter of great public concern, were balanced in content and tone, and critically, did not assert the truth of the allegations reported.

Justice Harmindar Singh said the press and journalists play a crucial role in reporting matters of public interest and matters of serious public concern, adding that in its role as a watchdog for the people, the awareness created by such media reports will by and large lead to greater protection of society as a whole.

“In carrying out this duty, the press may at times get the facts wrong. However, in matters of public interest so long as the press holds a reasonable belief that the publication is in the public interest or that the publication is a fair, accurate and impartial account of the dispute, the press and the journalists are entitled to the protection of the law,” he said.

RAGM filed the lawsuit against Malaysiakini for defamation and malicious falsehood in respect of three articles and two videos published in the Malaysiakini portal in 2012 on health concerns of Bukit Koman villagers in Raub, Pahang, over RAGM’s gold mining activities.

On May 23, 2016, the High Court dismissed RAGM’s claim against Malaysiakini and the other three defendants but on Jan 11, 2018, the Court of Appeal reversed the High Court’s decision and ordered them to pay RM200,000 in damages and RM150,000 in legal costs.

A team of lawyers led by Datuk Dr Cyrus Das represented Malaysiakini while lawyer Tan Sri Cecil Abraham appeared for RAGM.